When people or corporations have a dispute, they usually go to a lawyer who will change it into a lawsuit. The parties involved in a lawsuit are litigants. Sometime, they start lawsuits without the help of a lawyer. Then they become pro se litigants.
Often, prospective litigants visit lawyers. Upon listening to the facts, lawyers may decide to represent them. From prospective clients they become “clients.” In exchange for legal representation, lawyers usually charge their clients an hourly wage. Sometimes attorneys may accept a contingency fee representation and the client will not incur any pecuniary loss because the attorney is paid a percentage of the damages won in the case. Very rarely, lawyers represent clients on a pro bono basis and do not incur any pecuniary gain for their services. Each state has its roster of organizations providing pro bone services. They are usually understaffed and insufficient. Also, it is often very difficult to obtain such representation because prospective clients have to prove that their “family is at or below 250% of federal poverty level”! (see qualifying conditions for such representation in New York State, at http://apps.americanbar.org/legalservices/probono/directory/newyork.html).
The document that starts a civil action is a complaint, and it contains causes of action that explain the legal grounds for the action. When a private wrong, an act violating an individual’s right, is sought to be remedied, then a civil action is started. The moment the plaintiff or her attorney files the complaint, the court assigns it a docket number which becomes the main identifier of that litigation process within that court. All documents filed subsequently within that court will be part of the docket sheet identified with that specific docket number. For example, the docket number in Capato v. Commissioner of Social Security, a federal civil case litigated in the Third Circuit is No. 10-2027. When the case moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, as Astrue v. Capato, its docket identification changed to No. 11-159.
When a public wrong, an act violating the pubic rights of or the duties due to the whole community, is sought to be corrected, then the state becomes the plaintiff and commences a criminal case. A mere individual cannot start a penal case, because a criminal case perform a different social role than a civil case, which is based on an individual wrong. A criminal case often attempts to secure obedience to the state’s laws through the physical punishment of the lawbreaker.
If the party who starts the lawsuit is called the plaintiff, the party against whom a remedy is sought will become the defendant. The remedy sought in a civil action is usually a pecuniary one-the payment of money. In addition to damages-request for a money payment-the plaintiff may also seek equitable relief. Seeking equitable relief is asking the court to issue an injunction that will order the defendant to do or not to do something.
Once the complaint is filed, the alleged wrongdoer—the defendant—is informed about the legal action taken against it. The defendant will be served with the necessary legal papers that will offer support for building a defense. In response, the defendant may choose to answer or serve a counter-complaint.