Debt, Action of
DEBT, ACTION OF
One of the oldest common-lawforms of actionavailable to private litigants seeking to collect what is owed to them because of a harm done to them by another.
Originally, the action was allowed for any plaintiff who claimed an obligation owed by another person, but the courts gradually began to recognize two forms of action: detinue, an action to collect a specific item of property, and a debt for a sum of money. The distinction had become clear in England by the early thirteenth century. In debt, as in detinue, a defendant who lost the case had the option of either paying a sum of money for the judgment or giving back the property that gave rise to the debt. Later in the thirteenth century, courts began to permit replevin, an action for the return of goods wrongfully taken or withheld, and covenant, an action for damages from someone who broke an agreement. Gradually, judges began to demand firm proof of the agreement, and finally they would accept nothing less than a contract made under seal. Later the action in assumpsit enlarged the rights of a disappointed party to a contract by allowing monetary damages for any breach. This action enjoyed growing popularity and supplanted the action of debt for a time because it permitted the defendant to prove his or her case by swearing in open court and by bringing along eleven neighbors who would proclaim their belief in their neighbor's truthfulness. When this procedure, called the wager of law, was abolished during the reign of King William IV (1830–1837), the action of debt again became important as an action to enforce a simple contract.
As long as common-law forms of action were the required modes for pleading civil actions, the action of debt continued to be useful. Relief was available only for those whose claims fit exactly into its form, however, and there was criticism of its rigidity and technicalities. By the end of the nineteenth century most states had passed laws to replace the old forms of action with code pleading. Today, the law of civil procedure recognizes only one form for a lawsuit, the civil action. An individual can still sue to collect what is due on a debt, but no longer is it necessary to draw the complaint in the form of the ancient action of debt.