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The forms of action were the different procedures by which a legal claim could be made during much of the history of the
English common law English law is the common law list of national legal systems, legal system of England and Wales, comprising mainly English criminal law, criminal law and Civil law (common law), civil law, each branch having its own Courts of England and Wales, ...
. Depending on the court, a
plaintiff A plaintiff (pi (letter), Π in List of legal abbreviations, legal shorthand) is the party who initiates a lawsuit (also known as an ''action'') before a court. By doing so, the plaintiff seeks a legal remedy. If this search is successful, the co ...
would purchase a
writ In common law, a writ (Anglo-Saxon ''gewrit'', Latin ''breve'') is a formal written order issued by a body with administrative or judicial jurisdiction; in modern usage, this body is generally a court. Warrant (legal), Warrants, prerogative wri ...
in Chancery (or file a bill) which would set in motion a series of events eventually leading to a trial in one of the medieval common law courts. Each writ entailed a different set of procedures and remedies which together amounted to the "form of action". The forms of action were abolished during the 19th century, but they have left an indelible mark on the law. In the early
Middle Ages In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted approximately from the late 5th to the late 15th centuries, similar to the Post-classical, post-classical period of World history (field), global history. It began with t ...
, the focus was on the procedure that was employed to bring one's claim to the royal courts of King's Bench or
Common Pleas A court of common pleas is a common kind of court structure found in various common law jurisdictions. The form originated with the Court of Common Pleas (England), Court of Common Pleas at Westminster, which was created to permit individuals to pr ...
: it was the ''form'' of one's action, not its substance, which occupied legal discussion. This restrictive approach is one of the reasons which attracted litigants to petition the King directly, which eventually led to the development of a separate court known as the
Court of Chancery The Court of Chancery was a court of equity in England and Wales England and Wales () is one of the three legal jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. It covers the constituent countries England and Wales and was formed by the Laws in Wa ...
, from which the body of law known as equity derives. Modern
English law English law is the common law list of national legal systems, legal system of England and Wales, comprising mainly English criminal law, criminal law and Civil law (common law), civil law, each branch having its own Courts of England and Wales, ...
, as in most other legal systems, now looks to substance rather than to form: a claimant needs only to demonstrate a valid
cause of action A cause of action or right of action, in law, is a set of facts sufficient to justify suing to obtain money or property, or to justify the enforcement of a legal right against another party. The term also refers to the legal theory upon which a ...
.


Forms of action

The substantive law lay buried beneath the various actions: medieval practitioners and judges thought procedurally, not substantively. Rights and duties which are today considered to be part of the law of
property Property is a system of rights that gives people legal control of valuable things, and also refers to the valuable things themselves. Depending on the nature of the property, an owner of property may have the right to Consumables, consume, alte ...
,
tort A tort is a civil wrong that causes a claimant to suffer loss or harm, resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortious act. Tort law can be contrasted with criminal law, which deals with criminal wrongs that are punishab ...
,
contract A contract is a legally enforceable agreement between two or more Party (law), parties that creates, defines, and governs mutual rights and obligations between them. A contract typically involves the transfer of goods, Service (economics), ser ...
or unjust enrichment were not conceptualised as such. In the early medieval period, justice was administered at a local level. Following the
Norman conquest of England The Norman Conquest (or the Conquest) was the 11th-century invasion and occupation of England by an army made up of thousands of Normans, Norman, Duchy of Brittany, Breton, County of Flanders, Flemish, and Kingdom of France, French troops, ...
in the 11th century, a system of royal central justice gradually took shape. The principal royal courts were King's Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer. These royal courts were initially only interested in matters relating to the feudal system: that is, to land law. Accordingly, many of the earliest writs dealt with real property. For example: * Writ of right * assize of novel disseisin * assize of mort d'ancestor * Writ of entry sur disseisin in the per and cui * Writ of besaiel * Writ of quare impedit * Ejectment Over time, the royal courts began to take notice of other cases. These early writs were in the ''praecipe'' form: they commanded that the defendant perform a certain act or else appear and explain why he had not done so. Examples include the writs of covenant, debt and account. Such writs ''demanded something as of right''. The royal courts were initially only concerned with ''complaints of wrong'' if the wrong involved a forcible breach of the King's Peace. Such wrongs were enforced by a writ of trespass ''vi et armis contra pacem regis''. During the 14th century the royal courts gradually allowed actions which did not involve breaches of the King's Peace. Instead, the plaintiff would set out his 'special case' in an extra clause, specifying the damage sustained which justified the bringing of an action. This was known as a trespass on the case. From the trespass on the case developed many other forms of action. Apart from the actions which dealt with real property, other significant forms of action include: * Action of covenant * Action of debt ''sur obligation'' ("Debt on an obligation") * Action of debt ''sur contract'' ("Debt on a contract") * Action of detinue * Action of account * Trespass ''vi et armis contra pacem regis'' ("Trespass with force and arms against the King's peace") * Trespass ''sur la case'' ("Trespass on the case" or "action on the case") ** Conversion ** Nuisance ** Negligence ** Deceit ** Action on the case for words (Defamation, Slander) ** Assumpsit *** Special assumpsit *** Indebitatus assumpsit **** Action for money had and received to the plaintiff's use **** Action for money paid to the defendant's use **** Quantum meruit **** Quantum valebant Many actions developed from the action on the case during the later history of the common law. The three most significant of these were: * ''The action of assumpsit'', the rapid expansion of which is traced to '' Slade's Case'' (1602). The medieval law of contract developed in a fractured way through the old actions of covenant, debt and account. In the 1500s litigants began to use the action on the case to enforce contractual agreements (with the exception of contracts under seal, for which debt ''sur obligation'' was required), a shift vindicated in ''Slade's Case''. The modern law of contract then gradually began to take shape. * ''The action of indebitatus assumpsit''. Following the recognition in ''Slade's Case'' (1602) that assumpsit could be brought in lieu of debt ''sur contract'', a form of action known as indebitatus assumpsit took shape. This action developed several sub-forms known as the common money counts. These actions were initially used to enforce what we would call contractual liability, but they rested on the court implying that a defendant had promised to pay a sum of money to the plaintiff. This promise initially reflected reality, but came to be used fictitiously. Thus where A mistakenly paid money to B, the law would imply a promise by B that B would repay the money: A could then bring an action for money had and received and recover the mistaken payment. The defendant's obligation was not consensually undertaken, but imposed by law. From such actions came the law of quasi-contract. This area of law is now known as the law of unjust enrichment. * ''The action on the case for negligence'', the rapid expansion of which is traced to Donoghue v Stevenson 932 The tort of negligence lies at the heart of the modern law of tort, which also includes obligations enforced via the old actions of trespass (to the person, to goods, and to land), actions on the case, conversion, deceit, and defamation.


England

One of the reasons for the crystallisation of particular forms of action in English common law is the fact that actions in the royal courts were commenced by use of a writ purchased in Chancery. Initially, the clerks of the Chancery were permitted to devise new writs to deal with new situations. This freedom was drastically curtailed in 1258 by the Provisions of Oxford. By the 14th century, the common law had begun to show some of its defects. First, different forms of action would result in different procedures, meaning that one's chance of success was strongly dependent upon the form of action which was used. The forms were mandatory: if the wrong form was used, a case would be dismissed with prejudice. Second, the common law had strict rules of evidence. For example, a deed was conclusive proof of a defendant's liability to pay. If a plaintiff brought a writ of debt ''sur obligation'' against the defendant, but the defendant had already paid the debt, the defendant would still be held liable to pay unless he could produce a deed of acquittance. Problems such as these prompted litigants to turn to the
Court of Chancery The Court of Chancery was a court of equity in England and Wales England and Wales () is one of the three legal jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. It covers the constituent countries England and Wales and was formed by the Laws in Wa ...
, which had begun to develop judicial functions in the early 14th century.


Abolition of the forms

Because the forms of action remained largely static from the 13th century, English lawyers and judges formulated a number of
legal fiction A legal fiction is a question of law, fact assumed or created by courts, which is then used in order to help reach a decision or to apply a legal rule. The concept is used almost exclusively in common law jurisdictions, particularly in England a ...
s in order to fit new types of cases within the existing forms. For example, in a writ of debt ''sur contract'', the defendant could generally elect between having a jury trial or wager of law. The latter was a particularly undesired option for a plaintiff because the defendant could ''hire'' oath-helpers. This and other restrictions (for example, that the sum the plaintiff sued for had to be a fixed rather than an unliquidated sum) made debt ''sur contract'' undesirable for enforcing oral contracts. In the 16th century, litigants began to bring an action on the case instead: an action of assumpsit. The plaintiff would allege that, because the defendant was indebted to the plaintiff, the defendant had undertook (''assumpsit'') to pay the money. The Court of King's Bench gradually accepted that the subsequent promise did not need not be proven: the defendant's alleged promise to pay the antecedent debt would be supplied by law. This view was vindicated in '' Slade's Case'' (1602). The forms themselves remained unchallenged. The Court of Chancery eventually ceased to be the answer to the restrictive approach at common law. By the 16th century the intervention of the Chancellor was increasingly said to depend on principles, rather than on some unbounded discretion. Chancery developed a stronger system of precedent and, in the words of Professor Sir John Baker, "hardened into law". During the 19th century,
Parliament In modern politics, and history, a parliament is a legislative body of government. Generally, a modern parliament has three functions: Representation (politics), representing the Election#Suffrage, electorate, making laws, and overseeing ...
passed several laws to simplify legal procedure, and the old forms of action were gradually swept away: * For personal forms of action, the ''Uniformity of Process Act 1832'' (2 Will. IV, c.39) imposed a single uniform process. The older forms of writ were abolished and a new form of writ was to be used, although the writ had to state the form of action that was being used. * The next year, most real and mixed actions were abolished, by the ''Real Property Limitation Act 1833'' (3 and 4 Will. IV, c. 27, sec 36). * There then followed the ''Common Law Procedure Act 1852'' (15 and 16 Vic., c. 76), which dropped the requirement that any particular form of action should be mentioned within a writ. * Finally, with the passage of the Judicature Act 1873, the last vestiges of the forms of action were removed. The flexible bill procedure of Chancery was adopted by the common law courts. It was now only necessary to state the facts sufficient to give rise to one's
cause of action A cause of action or right of action, in law, is a set of facts sufficient to justify suing to obtain money or property, or to justify the enforcement of a legal right against another party. The term also refers to the legal theory upon which a ...
.


The substantive law

With the abolition of the forms of action, it became necessary (and for the first time truly possible) to perceive the substantive law beneath the various actions. In terms of the private law of obligations, the following points can be noted. * ''Contract.'' The various writs by which agreements could be enforced became part of a modern law of contract, explicable in terms of consensually assumed obligation. But traces of the old forms of action remain. For example, it is not necessary to show that a claimant has provided consideration where she sues on a deed. This is because consideration was never a requirement in the action of debt ''sur obligation''. * ''Tort.'' The various writs which involved complaint of a civil wrong and a demand for a remedy came together in a law of tort. * ''Unjust enrichment.'' At first, common law restitutionary obligations were appended to the law of contract and said to form a law of
quasi-contract A quasi-contract (or implied-in-law contract or constructive contract) is a Legal fiction, fictional contract recognised by a court. The notion of a quasi-contract can be traced to Roman law and is still a concept used in some modern legal systems ...
. Motivated by the writing of scholars from
Oxford Oxford () is a city in England. It is the county town and only city of Oxfordshire. In 2020, its population was estimated at 151,584. It is north-west of London, south-east of Birmingham and north-east of Bristol. The city is home to the Un ...
and
Cambridge Cambridge ( ) is a College town, university city and the county town in Cambridgeshire, England. It is located on the River Cam approximately north of London. As of the 2021 United Kingdom census, the population of Cambridge was 145,700. Cam ...
the courts gradually accepted that such obligations were of another kind, underpinned by the concept of unjust enrichment. In '' Lipkin Gorman v Karpnale Ltd'' 991the House of Lords explicitly recognised the independent existence of the law of unjust enrichment.


South Australia

The ''Common Law Procedure Act 1852'' (15 and 16 Vic., c. 76) was enacted prior to the promulgation of the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865 and while it was repealed in England, continued to apply by paramount force in South Australia. The Supreme Court Act 1935 grants to the Supreme Court of South Australia the like jurisdiction exercised by both the common law and equity courts of England prior to the enactment of the Judiciary Acts which included the initiation of a personal jurisdiction over a person in a case by virtue of the issue of a writ of summons. The judges of the Court were given power to regulate the procedure of the Court within jurisdiction and preserved the Rules of Court extant at 1935 in cases not otherwise provided for. The writ of summons is the common originating process, but takes a form approved under the present rules.


United States

The forms of action survived much longer in the United States. New York was the first to abolish them, by enacting a Code of Civil Procedure in 1850 at the suggestion of David Dudley Field II. Twenty-three other states eventually followed. Section 307 of the
California Code of Civil Procedure The California Code of Civil Procedure (abbreviated to Code Civ. Proc. in the California Style Manual or just CCP in treatises and other less formal contexts) is a California code enacted by the California State Legislature The Californ ...
is a typical example of how the forms of action were abolished in those states: "There is in this State but one form of civil actions for the enforcement or protection of private rights and the redress or prevention of private wrongs." However, the forms of action persisted in the federal courts until 1938, when the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were promulgated pursuant to the Rules Enabling Act. Rule 2, at that time, stated: "There shall be one form of action to be known as 'civil action'." Since 35 U.S. states now use versions of the FRCP in their state courts and the remaining 15 states are all "code pleading" states, so the forms of action are now obsolete in the United States.


See also

*
cause of action A cause of action or right of action, in law, is a set of facts sufficient to justify suing to obtain money or property, or to justify the enforcement of a legal right against another party. The term also refers to the legal theory upon which a ...
*
writ In common law, a writ (Anglo-Saxon ''gewrit'', Latin ''breve'') is a formal written order issued by a body with administrative or judicial jurisdiction; in modern usage, this body is generally a court. Warrant (legal), Warrants, prerogative wri ...
*Historians of English legal history ** Professor FW Maitland (Cambridge) ** Professor Frederick Pollock (Oxford) ** Professor James Ames (Harvard) ** Professor William Holdsworth (Oxford)
Professor SFC Milsom (Cambridge)
** Professor Sir John Baker (Cambridge) ** Professor David Ibbetson (Cambridge) ** Professor AWB Simpson (Oxford, Cambridge)


References

{{Reflist


External links


F. W. Maitland: ''The Forms of Action at Common Law'' (1909)
* Selec
Writs.
Common law legal terminology Common law Legal history of England