Legal cases begin with the filing of a complaint, sometimes called a petition. This is the document that sets out the basic facts of the case, including what the plaintiff is seeking. Complaints can be used to seek anything from a divorce to a personal injury settlement to enforcement of a contract. Before a person sits down to draft a complaint, she should figure out the type of case and the relief she is seeking.
Criminal vs. Civil Complaints
A private person will never have the occasion to draft a criminal complaint. Criminal charges must be brought by a government prosecutor, like a state district attorney. That's why criminal cases are titled, "The People vs. John Doe." Only attorneys working in a prosecutor's office will have reason to write a criminal complaint.
Civil complaints, on the other hand, can be brought by any individual or business entity. Most Americans will be involved in some court action during their lifetimes, whether that be the dissolution of a marriage, a probate filing or an automobile accident personal injury lawsuit. When it's time to commence a civil lawsuit, figuring out what type of case is key.
Read More: How to Amend a Civil Complaint
Sample and Form Complaints
A sample complaint is a model complaint someone prepares for other people to modify and use for their own lawsuits. These complaints vary in quality and can be difficult to adapt to a particular case in a particular state.
A form complaint is a fill-in-the-blanks form, often offered by court systems to assist people who are filing lawsuits without attorneys. The forms are reviewed by court attorneys to be sure they comply with state law and usually include instructions on how to fill them out. California courts help litigants to include the correct information in complaints by creating a set of court forms called Judicial Council forms with boxes that a litigant can check depending on his situation and blank spaces in which to provide relevant information.
California courts also have a self-help website for individuals who are representing themselves. These websites explain the different tasks for litigants at different stages of a civil case. They have specific instructions for filing or responding to different types of cases.
Overview of a Complaint
It's helpful to start with an overview of the purpose of a civil complaint. This document is the initial filing in a lawsuit and it must advise both the court and the person being sued about the case. It should identify the parties, clearly lay out the facts and describe the damages sought and other relief requested.
Identifying the Parties
The person filing the complaint is known as the plaintiff, while the person being sued is usually called the defendant. In states where the opening document is called a petition, the person bringing the case is called the petitioner, and the person being sued is called the respondent.
The person drafting the complaint needs to introduce both parties. She must include her own name and address in the document and the name and address of the defendant as well.
Setting Out Facts
The plaintiff also must put all of the core facts of the case in the complaint. If the complaint is about a car accident, for example, the complaint should state when it happened, where it happened and why it happened, although general allegations of negligence or willful conduct are sufficient at this stage. The plaintiff also must generally describe his injuries and present a claim for damages or whatever other relief she may be seeking.
Oath, Signature and Date
Every complaint must be signed and dated by the plaintiff. In most jurisdictions it must be signed under oath. Sometimes complaints are signed in front of a notary, although in many cases this is not required.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.