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Code Pleading


A statutory scheme that abolished the ancient common-lawforms of actionand replaced the overly technical system ofcommon-law pleadingwith simplified provisions for a plaintiff to bring a lawsuit and a defendant to answer the claims alleged against him or her.

As the common law developed in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066, a plaintiff could start a lawsuit only by obtaining a writ from the king or the king's chancellor. In time these writs took on fixed forms and a plaintiff could obtain one only if the words of the claim fit one of the established forms of action. There was no room for variation in the words of the plaintiff's complaint or the defendant's response. By the fourteenth century the forms of action had become quite rigid and they took on the same overly technical characteristics under the common law in the United States. Frequently a worthy claim was tossed out of court because of some miscalculation or misstatement in the pleadings and justice was ill-served.

In 1848 New York enacted a new code to govern pleading in the courts of that state. It was called the Field Code after david dudley field, the man who devised it. A number of other states followed the lead of New York. This pattern of pleading a cause of action or a response came to be called code pleading.

Common-law pleading had required reducing every case to one claim and one response. Since grievances did not always fit into common-law forms, code pleading abandoned it. All the old forms of action were abolished and the extreme formality of common-law pleading was abandoned. Under code pleading the plaintiff has only to make a statement of facts that, if true, justify legal relief. The only requirement is that those facts fit the general pattern of some established legal right and that they state a claim on which relief can be granted. Furthermore, the plaintiff can present alternative or even inconsistent sets of facts and leave it to the trier of fact to establish which are correct. This is allowed when the plaintiff does not know all the facts affecting the claim, so long as the pleading is made honestly and in good faith. More than one cause of action can be alleged but they must be stated as separate counts. For example, some states allow a simplified form of pleading of a breach of contract. The plaintiff may simply state that money is owed but has not been paid or services have been rendered but payment has not been made.

Code pleading solved many of the problems associated with common-law pleading but it also spawned a new controversy. The requirement that a plaintiff set out a claim by reciting facts justifying relief left open the question of what facts might be included. It has often been said that a plaintiff need plead ultimate facts, not legal conclusions. Case after case has been fought on this point. The distinction primarily concerns how much detail must be given. A plaintiff must be able to show that he or she has a legal right, the defendant breached or violated that right, and the plaintiff thereby suffered some harm.

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