The initial document a person must file to begin a legal case is called a complaint or petition. In many states, it is possible for a lay person to fill out the court form herself without hiring an attorney. This is easiest in states that offer assistance and instructions for individuals filing on their own.
What Is a Petition?
The term "petition" is used to refer to many different documents, from a petition gathering signatures to a petition for divorce. In the United States, the terms "petition" and "complaint" are often used interchangeably. The person filing the petition is called the plaintiff or petitioner, and the other party is termed the defendant or respondent.
Generally, a plaintiff files a petition or complaint when he feels that he has been wronged in some way by the defendant and seeks money damages. However, a petition can also serve as the opening document in a divorce, bankruptcy or probate filing.
A complaint contains an outline of the facts of the case. It usually must be accompanied by a summons, notifying the defendant of when the response is due. Together these opening case documents provide the defendant with notice of the lawsuit.
What Does a Petition Contain?
A petition summarizes the circumstances leading to the court case. This means that a complaint must contain the name of the person filing the case and the person or people she is suing. In an injury case, for example, it must contain the basic facts that led to the harm she suffered at the hands of the defendant as well as a statement of injury and damages.
In many states, the courts provide form complaints that a party can use to open a lawsuit. Exactly what a petition form looks like varies among states and courts. For example, the form complaint in California for a small claims court case is different from a personal injury case, but instructions are available for both forms. And each state will have its own requirements and instructions.
How to Draft a Petition
A person wishing to begin a legal case without an attorney can also find help in the forms themselves. Like IRS forms, many court forms come with instructions as to how to fill them out. Finally, state or local law libraries might offer assistance or steer a self-represented petitioner in the right direction.
A person filing a complaint without an attorney may be able to get assistance from the court. A plaintiff in that situation should find out if the relevant court has a court facilitator or an online self-help website for litigants without attorneys. A judge, however, cannot assist parties, and no court employee can give legal advice.
What Goes in a Petition?
Individuals drafting a court petition should keep in mind that the purpose of the document is to advise the other party of the basic facts of the case. In order to do that, a petitioner must include the core facts and dates and must sign and date the petition.
For example, if the event at the center of the complaint is an automobile accident, the petition must include the names of the drivers, the date of the accident, what happened and what the damages were, including both personal injuries and property damage. If the petition is for a divorce, it should include the names of the spouses, the date of the marriage, the date of the separation, the names and ages of the children as well as the fact that the petitioner seeks a divorce.
Once the summons and petition are prepared, the petitioner must file them with the court and see that a copy is personally delivered to the defendant by an adult who is not a party to the lawsuit. It is always advisable to have an attorney review a petition before filing to be sure it contains all necessary allegations.