The defendant in a legal action is the person against whom a lawsuit or criminal action has been brought, who is called upon to defend against the accusations in the suit. In any type of legal action there are two primary roles: the plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff is the person or entity who brings the lawsuit and the person against whom the suit is brought is the defendant. In a civil action, the lawsuit can generally be brought by any person alleging harm by the defendant. In a criminal action, even if a person has been harmed by the defendant’s actions, only the government can file suit. While the same term is used to describe defendants in civil and criminal actions, the roles that civil and criminal defendants play are not identical.
In a civil action, while the plaintiff retains the burden of proof, the standard that the plaintiff has to meet is preponderance of the evidence. From a practical perspective, this means that a defendant will have to supply some evidence to contradict a plaintiff’s claims or else lose the lawsuit. Therefore, once a civil lawsuit has begun, plaintiffs and defendants play very similar roles in the process. In fact, defendants can even counter-sue plaintiffs. In addition, defendants in civil actions can face default judgments, where the court issues a judgment in favor of a plaintiff if a defendant fails to appear for a civil court proceeding.
In contrast, in a criminal court proceeding, the state or federal government is the entity bringing the suit and must prove the charges against a defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is entitled to greater discovery from the state than it would be from a plaintiff in a civil suit, and the government has an obligation to turn over any exculpatory evidence to a criminal defendant.