complaint | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Procedural Law

A legal complaint is a formal document that initiates a lawsuit by outlining the plaintiff’s claim, legal grounds and sought relief.

In the realm of law, a complaint holds considerable significance. It’s a formal legal document that sets a lawsuit into motion. This critical instrument narrates the plaintiff’s side of the story, outlining the facts, presenting the legal grounds of the claim, and demanding relief. Understanding the intricacies of a legal complaint can provide valuable insights into the workings of the judicial system.

A complaint in the legal context refers to an official document that a plaintiff submits to initiate a lawsuit. This document is typically submitted to a court of law and serves as the foundation for the entire case. The complaint is directed toward a specific defendant, the party that the plaintiff alleges to have committed a wrongdoing. This document essentially sets the stage for all subsequent legal proceedings, providing a roadmap for the case.

Contents of a Complaint

A well-drafted complaint contains key elements that outline the plaintiff’s case. First, it presents the facts of the matter. This section describes the situation from the plaintiff’s perspective, detailing what transpired, who was involved, and how the plaintiff was wronged. The facts should be stated clearly and concisely, providing sufficient information for the court to understand the circumstances surrounding the case.

Next, the complaint lays out the legal grounds for the claim. This section links the described facts to specific legal principles or statutes that the defendant is alleged to have violated. By connecting the defendant’s actions to existing laws, the complaint seeks to demonstrate that the defendant’s actions were indeed wrongful under the law.

Lastly, the complaint states the relief that the plaintiff is seeking. This could be monetary damages, an injunction to prevent the defendant from continuing certain behavior, or any other form of relief permitted by law. The relief sought is typically reflective of the harm suffered by the plaintiff and serves to compensate for, or rectify, that harm.

Importance of the Complaint

The importance of a complaint in legal proceedings can’t be overstated. It serves as the plaintiff’s first opportunity to present their case and set the narrative. The complaint informs the defendant about the allegations against them, providing an opportunity for them to prepare a defense. It also guides the court in understanding the dispute and framing the issues for trial.

Beyond informing the parties and the court, the complaint plays a role in case management. The nature of the complaint can determine the timeline of the proceedings, the discovery process, and even the potential for settlement discussions.


To summarize, a complaint is a pivotal legal document that kick-starts a lawsuit. It tells the plaintiff’s story, outlines the legal basis of the claim, and states what the plaintiff hopes to achieve through the lawsuit. As the starting point of a legal dispute, it plays a fundamental role in the trajectory of a lawsuit, shaping the proceedings that follow.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/14/2023


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