When it comes to court cases, there are legal terms of art for the person who instigates a lawsuit and for the person who is on the opposing side. The main parties involved in a legal action are known as the petitioner and the respondent. Each has court paperwork to submit and procedures to follow. What is required of each party depends on the type of proceeding.
What Is a Petitioner?
In civil cases, the petitioner is the party that instigates the legal action. For example, in a divorce case, the petitioner is the spouse filing for divorce. The person who instigates a legal action must file a petition that lays out the grounds for the lawsuit. It describes the petitioner’s version of the facts and the damages she suffered as a result. This petition must be served on the other party, the respondent, by a summons.
The petitioner must also submit other forms, which vary based on the jurisdiction and the type of case filed. In a divorce case, for example, the petitioner may need to also submit a parenting plan, a separation agreement, a certificate of compliance with mandatory financial disclosures and a notice of domestic relations status conference.
In criminal cases, the state is the petitioner bringing charges against the person who is alleged to have committed a crime. That person is known as the defendant. However, the defendant in a criminal case becomes a petitioner in some circumstances, such as if he seeks to have his conviction expunged.
What Is a Respondent?
The respondent is the person being sued in civil cases. For example, in a divorce case, the respondent is the spouse who did not initiate the divorce proceeding. The respondent must usually file a formal response, or answer, to the petition to ensure that the judge hears his side of the lawsuit. The response should indicate why the petitioner should not win the case, and may include additional facts or defenses. In many cases, the respondent has only 30 days or less to respond to the petition. The respondent can also file other requests to the court, such as a motion to dismiss the lawsuit as frivolous.
A respondent who fails to respond to the petitioner within the time limit can have a default judgment entered against her. That means she no longer has a right to participate in the case, and the court may order what the petitioner requested in the petition, regardless of who was actually at fault.
Petitioner and Respondent in Appellate Cases
In appellate cases, the party names work a bit differently. The party appealing the judgment of the lower court is the petitioner and the party that prevailed at the lower court is the respondent, regardless of who filed the initial case. For example, if a defendant is convicted of a crime at trial and appeals the conviction, the defendant will become the petitioner in the appellate court case, and the government will be the respondent.
In an appellate case, the petitioner must file a petition to appeal and an appellate brief if the petition is granted. A petition to appeal typically states that the law was incorrectly applied in the initial case. The respondent must file a response to the petition within a designated amount of time.
If both the petitioner and the respondent file appeals, they may both be regarded as petitioners. The first party to file an appeal would be the petitioner, and the second party to file an appeal would be the cross-petitioner.
Citing a Case
When citing a case in a legal document, the petitioner’s name always comes first. The respondent’s name is listed second. A case citation in a legal document includes the volume number of the reporter, or record, that contains the court’s opinion; the abbreviation for the reporter; the first page of the court’s opinion in the reporter; and the year the case was decided. This information allows interested parties to look up the correct case at any time.
Leslie Bloom earned a J.D. from U.C. Davis’ King Hall, with a focus on public interest law. She is a licensed attorney who has done advocacy work for children and women. She holds a B.S. in print journalism, and has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of print and online publications, including the Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy.