Asking a court to grant relief. The formal presentation of claims and defenses by parties to a lawsuit. The specific papers by which the allegations of parties to a lawsuit are presented in proper form; specifically the complaint of a plaintiff and the answer of a defendant plus any additional responses to those papers that are authorized by law.
Different systems of pleading have been organized generally to serve four functions: (1) to give notice of the claim or defense; (2) to reveal the facts of the case; (3) to formulate the issues that have to be resolved; and (4) to screen the flow of cases into a particular court. Different systems may rely on the pleadings to accomplish these purposes or may use the pleadings along with other procedural devices, such as discovery, pretrial conference among the parties, or summary judgment.
Originally in ancient England, the parties simply presented themselves to a tribunal and explained their dispute. This worked well enough in the local courts and in the feudal courts where a lord heard cases involving his tenants, but the great common-law courts of the king demanded more formality. From the end of the fourteenth to the middle of the sixteenth century, the royal courts began more and more to demand written pleadings that set out a party's position in a case. Predictably the shift resulted in more formality and more rigid technical requirements that were difficult to satisfy. Thus the course of common-law pleading was perilous. A claim or defense that did not exactly fit the requirements of the common-law forms of action was thrown out with no opportunity to amend it and come back into court.
Some relief was offered by the courts of equity, which were not bound by the same complex system of pleading. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the authority of such courts increased in proportion to the rigidity of the common-law pleading. Equity was the conscience of the judicial system and was charged with doing complete justice regardless of technicalities. Cases were tried before a single judge without a jury, and the judge could allow different claims and various parties all in one proceeding. Some pretrial discovery of the other party's evidence was permitted. The initial pleading by a petitioner in equity was the bill, but states that now have the same procedures for law and equity specify the complaint as the first pleading in all kinds of civil actions today.
Despite criticism, common-law pleading endured in England and in the United States for several centuries. Beginning in 1848, some states replaced it by law with a new system called code pleading. The statutes enacting code pleading abolished the old forms of action and set out a procedure that required the plaintiff simply to state in a complaint facts that warranted legal relief. A defendant was authorized to resist the plaintiff's demand by denying the truth of the facts in the complaint or by stating new facts that defeated them. The defendant's response is called an answer.
In 1938, federal courts began using a modern system of pleading set out in the federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This system has been so effective that many states have enacted substantially the same rules of pleading. A pleading by a plaintiff or defendant under these rules is intended simply to give the other party adequate notice of the claim or defense. This notice must give the adversary enough information so that she can determine the evidence that she wants to uncover during pretrial discovery and then adequately prepare for trial. Because of this under-lying purpose, modern federal pleading is also called notice pleading. The other objectives of earlier kinds of pleading are accomplished by different procedural devices provided for in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.