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Legal Information

Starting the Court Case

Can I file a case in court? Do I have a “cause of action”?

To start a court case, you must have a reason to go to court. Generally, the reason for your court case is known as the “cause of action.” A cause of action exists when someone (usually called the defendant or the respondent) has done a legal wrong to you, or there is a disagreement that the court can solve. For example, you could have a cause of action against any of the following people:

  • someone who assaulted you;
  • someone with whom you had an oral contract or agreement and that agreement was broken; or
  • someone with whom you have children and there is a disagreement over where they should live and who should make decisions for them.

All of these issues, and many others, represent causes of action that allow you to bring a court case.

How do I start a court case?

Most court cases start when one party files a complaint, petition, or other legal documents with the court clerk. Usually the party that starts the court case is called the “plaintiff” or the “petitioner” and the party being sued is the “defendant” or “respondent.” After you have filed the documents, the other party must be “served” with the documents; this is also known as “service of process.” The person that you are suing will get a summons or notice of petition (legal notice to appear in court) and copies of the documents that you filed, which usually includes the petition and affidavit. This will give the other party notice of the court case itself and of any court dates that are scheduled. In some cases, the court clerk might arrange for service and sometimes the plaintiff him/herself must arrange for service on the other party.

What should I include in the petition or complaint?

There is certain information that usually has to be included in a petition for it to be heard by a judge. In most states, you will need to include the names, addresses, and possibly the birth dates of the people involved in the court case. If the case involves children, the names of the children, their addresses, birth dates, and address history is usually also required. If you are concerned about disclosing your address, you can ask the court clerk if there is a way for you to keep your address confidential.

You will need to allege certain things in your petition in order to meet the basic requirements of the court where you are filing your court case. The information required in your petition will depend on the type of court case you are trying to file. Basically, you need to explain the reason you are filing, what you would like to see happen (the relief you are requesting) and provide specific examples of what occurred that makes you think the judge should give you what you are asking for. In some cases, there will be additional requirements that you will need to meet so you should be sure to review the form carefully and complete all of the sections. For example, in a case to modify an existing custody order, you might have to include information about a change of circumstances that has happened since the original order was issued.

Most states have sample petition forms that you can fill in online. If your state does not have forms available online, you may be able to get the forms by asking the court clerk in the courthouse where you want to file your petition. Some courthouses may even have a staff person who is available to help draft petitions.