The primary function of courts is to decide controversies. By definition, a controversy embodies the idea of a dispute or disagreement. In any given case the parties may disagree on the facts, or the law, or both. If a court is to decide the controversy it must first find out what the controversy is about.
The best way to do that is to ask the parties, but unless some orderly procedure is established both parties are likely to talk at once, at cross purposes with resulting confusion. To prevent this it would seem logical to require the parties to talk one at a time, and since the plaintiff is seeking relief he should go first.
In the very early days of the common law this is substantially what happened. Each party explained orally to the court his version of the case. This proved to be unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons and led to establishment of the requirement that each party must reduce his contentions to writing.
This tended to pinpoint the actual areas of disagreement. These written contentions of the parties came to be known as pleadings. The plaintiff filed his written statement of his version of the facts, which was called the declaration.
It sometimes happened that the defendant did not dispute the accuracy of the plaintiff’s statement of the facts but contended that there was no rule of law under which the plaintiff could recover. In such cases the defendant would file a demurrer raising a pure issue of law which was decided by the judge.
If, on the other hand, the defendant wished to challenge the accuracy of the plaintiff’s statement of the facts but contended that there was no rule of law under which the plaintiff could recover. In such cases the defendant would file a demurrer raising a pure issue of law which was decided by the judge.
If, on the other hand, the defendant wished to challenge the accuracy of the plaintiff’s facts he would file a plea which was called the general issue. The parties were then said to be at issue and ready for trial.
It could be, however, that the defendant could not convert the facts alleged by the plaintiff but contended that there were other facts which gave him a defense. In such case, he would file a plea in confession and avoidance.
The plaintiff then had the privilege of responding to this plea by filing a replication, which might; a.) Deny the new facts alleged by the defendant, or b.) Admit them and allege new facts such as that the defendant used much more force than was necessary for mere self-defense.
In this way, the pleadings would go on and on until the parties arrived at an issue, which would then be tried.
Pleadings have today been greatly simplified and shortened but still serve the purpose of defining the issues to be tried. The plaintiff’s first pleading is called the complaint or petition and is supposed to state the facts in ordinary and concise language together with a prayer or demand for the relief to which he believes he is entitled.
The defendant may then file a demurrer or a motion to dismiss (the modern equivalent) if he wishes to raise an issue of law. Of he may file an answer in which he may deny the plaintiff’s allegations and also raise affirmative defences by alleging new matter (the modern equivalent of the plea in confession and avoidance).
The defendant may also insert in his answers claims which he has against the plaintiff, which are called counterclaims. In some jurisdictions there are limitations on the type of counterclaims which a defendant may include in his answer, but in the federal courts he may include any and all claims which he may have against the plaintiff.
If no counterclaim is filed, pleadings usually consist of merely the complaint and the answer. If a counterclaim is filed, and in some jurisdictions also when affirmative defences are pleaded, the plaintiff is permitted to respond by filing a reply or replication.
It sometimes happens that mistakes are made in drawing the original pleadings, or that new and pertinent facts come to light. In such cases, a party may ask the court’s permission to file an amendment to his pleading.
Code in 1848, such permission was very grudgingly given and often was denied. Today courts are quite liberal in allowing amendments, even during the course of the trial, unless the opposing party would be taken by surprise and his interest thus prejudiced.
The two principal functions of pleadings are to inform the court of the nature of the controversy (to serve as blueprints for the trial) and to give notice to the parties and thus enable them to prepare for the issues which are to be tried.
They also perform a third function by serving as a permanent record of the disposition of the controversy. There is a rule of law, based on the sound principle of repose, that a case once tried and adjudicated can never be tried again. Otherwise, litigation might be endless.