Legal language basics: Plaintiff, petitioner, or . . . ?

Plaintiff, petitioner, complainant, pleadant… Another group of words I’ve come across as translations for one French concept. For a non-lawyer, it can be frustrating teasing out the subtleties to make a good word choice!

Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage helps with this particular query under several entries. But, of course, I always want to verify my answers with multiple alternative sources. This is what I found:

  • A plaintiff is a person who initiates a legal action. This is the most common term to use for the “attacking” side in a legal text. Cornell Law provides a good explanation of a plaintiff’s role in a pleading here.
  • Petitioner is another term for plaintiff, mainly limited to family court (for marriage or divorce, for instance) and certain legal actions specified by certain states’ laws. In immigration law, a petitioner is someone who sponsors an individual applying for a green card. New York State defines a petitioner as “in a special or summary proceeding, one who commences a formal written application, requesting some action or relief, addressed to a court for determination. Also known as a plaintiff in a civil action” (emphasis added).
  • A complainant is a plaintiff protesting something through legal action. This is a less common, more general term to use (see, for example, this definition). Browse excerpts in which this term is employed here.
  • Pleadant appears to be used only rarely, to mean “a person entering a plea”—so really, a defendant against a legal accusation. If you know more about this term, please share!
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2 thoughts on “Legal language basics: Plaintiff, petitioner, or . . . ?

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