Understanding Court Documents

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To begin a legal proceeding, the initiating party (plaintiff) must file a pleading called a Summons and Complaint.  In that one sentence, there is a lot of legal jargon which many people may not understand the full meaning of.  If you are representing yourself in a lawsuit, or if you are just interesting in understanding court document, it is important to start at the beginning.

Starting The Lawsuit
A Pleading is a document that in a legal proceeding which asserts or responds to an allegation, defense, denial, or claim.  When a lawsuit is initiated, one party must go to court and file a pleading with the court.  Filing with the court generally means delivering the document, or pleading, to court clerk, who will make that document an official part of the court record.  The types of documents filed with court clerk vary by the type of case, and by the stage of the case.

The Summons and Complaint are two different documents that are filed together.  The Summons commences the plaintiff’s action against the other party (defendant) and requires an action from the defendant, such as an answer.  The Complaint is the pleading which names the parties involved, the legal claim asserted, certain facts associated with the claim, and the type of compensation the plaintiff requests.  In some cases, the complaint is also known as the petition.

Inside the Court
Once the lawsuit has commenced, your case will become a part of the court’s calendar and the court’s docket.  The Court’s Calendar is the court’s list of all civil and criminal cases and the events associated with those cases, such as a trial.  If you are involved in a lawsuit, you may need to consult the court’s calendar to determine if your presence is required for any hearings.  The Court Docket is the court’s formal record of all proceedings and filings in a case.

Court Opinions and Court Orders are the final stage documents of a legal case.  The Court Opinion is a document containing the courts explanation of their decision in a case.  The Court Opinion contains 4 main areas: the facts of the case, the laws which apply to the facts and the courts decision, the rational behind the courts decision, and the court’s formal opinion (dicta).  The Court Order is the command of the court.  For example, a court may order the defendant to pay the plaintiff.  The opinion will give the detailed explanation behind the court’s command.

Many states provide online access to review court opinions, dockets, calendars, and orders.  Additionally, where court records are online, you can also view most documents (pleadings) filed with the court.  www.Courtreference.com offers a comprehensive list of online court resources by state.

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