If you’re contemplating filing a legal complaint against another party, the first step is to determine what type of complaint to file. In general, there are two types of complaints: criminal complaints and civil complaints.

Criminal complaints relate to criminal matters and are almost always filed by the government. A state prosecution typically begins after a person is arrested, building the case along the way. The prosecution then files a criminal complaint in the appropriate court. The complaint officially charges the defendant with alleged crimes. The complaint lists the defendant(s), alleged crimes, date of the alleged offense, and a description of the underlying facts that led to the alleged offense.

Civil complaints can include any number of civil causes of action, including but not limited to, breach of contract, personal injury, harassment, fraud, undue influence, etc. Civil cases start with one party (plaintiff) filing a complaint in court against the other (the defendant).

Do You Need Evidence to Support Your Complaint?

In a word, yes, evidence must support your claim. If a plaintiff files a suit without any evidence to support his or her claims, the case will be dismissed and the defendant can countersue with a claim of malicious prosecution.

A defendant may bring a malicious prosecution suit against the plaintiff if the plaintiff made a baseless claim in either civil or criminal court. In other words, there was not ample evidence to support a cause of action against the defendant. Malicious prosecution is a civil claim for damages. In a criminal case, the defendant can sue the plaintiff and the police for malicious prosecution.

What Happens After You File a Complaint?

The procedure after you file a complaint differs depending on whether the complaint is a criminal complaint versus a civil complaint.

If a criminal complaint has been filed, the prosecution gathers evidence to demonstrate the defendant’s guilt, then tries the case in a court of law.

After a civil complaint is filed, the defendant has an opportunity to contest the causes of action by filing a demurrer or motion to strike. If successful, the demurrer or motion to strike can reduce the number of causes of actions filed against the defendant.

The next phase will be "Discovery," when the parties gather evidence to make or defend their case. It is during this phase that interviews are conducted of potential witnesses, depositions of all parties and witnesses are taken, and experts are identified. It is also the time in which each party gathers evidence, the plaintiff to support her claims and the defendant to defend against them.

Prior to the case going to trial, the court schedules a mandatory settlement conference. This is the last-ditch effort to settle the case before trial begins. If the parties cannot settle the case, the case goes to trial.

Do I Need a Lawyer to File a Complaint?

No, you don’t need a lawyer to file a complaint, but you likely want one. The rules of civil procedure require that you either plead your claim or you lose your ability to plead it in the future. Suppose you file a personal injury claim for a slip and fall against a grocery store, but forget to include a claim for lost wages stemming from the personal injury. If you settle the case or win at trial, you cannot go back and ask the court for lost wages, as the time to resolve the lost wages issue will have already passed.

If you discover that you forgot to add a cause of action to your initial complaint, you can always amend the complaint. However, this can become costly and time-consuming. A skilled attorney can help you minimize these unnecessary additional costs.