A formal response by the defendant to the affirmative assertions of the plaintiff in a civil case or to the charges of the prosecutor in a criminal case.
Under the old system of COMMON-LAW PLEADING, a plea was the defendant's first PLEADING in a case, the document in which he set out reasons why the plaintiff should not win on the claim made in his or her declaration. Rather than enter a plea, a defendant could file a demurrer, which was a pleading in which the defendant argued that the plaintiff had not made out a legally sufficient case. If the defendant did not demur, he responded to the plaintiff's declaration with a plea.
There were two kinds of pleas, dilatory and peremptory. A dilatory plea did not argue against the merits of the plaintiff's claim but challenged that individual's right to have the court hear the case. It was called dilatory not because it unfairly delayed the trial but simply because it postponed the time when, if ever, the court would reach the merits of the case. A plea in abatement was a dilatory plea.
A peremptory plea, also called a plea in bar, did reach the merits of the case. It set out certain facts that the defendant claimed would bar the granting of relief to the plaintiff.
The plea could be a traverse, a full denial of the plaintiff's version of the facts. In that situation, the issue was defined, and the case went to trial for a determination in favor of one party or the other.
The plea could be a confession and avoidance, by which the defendant conceded the truth of the plaintiff's allegations but asserted new facts by which she sought to avoid the legal effect of the plaintiff's claim. For example, the defendant could admit that she had made a bargain as claimed by the plaintiff and then add that she was a minor at the time that she entered into the agreement and therefore could not be bound by it. At that point, no issue would yet have been disputed by both parties, and the plaintiff would have to respond to the plea. The plaintiff had the same range of possible responses that the defendant had had when she selected the plea, but the plaintiff's responsive pleading was called a replication. If the plaintiff raised a new question, the defendant had to respond with a rejoinder. After that, the pleading process could bounce back and forth with a surrejoinder, a rebutter, and a surrebutter. Common-law pleading thus became so complex and hypertechnical that it has now been replaced by CODE PLEADING and pleading similar to that of the federal CIVIL PROCEDURE.
A defendant could also enter a plea in a case in EQUITY. This was a special kind of answer to a bill in equity, that showed one or more reasons why the suit should be dismissed, delayed, or barred entirely. Since the procedures for cases at law and in equity have been merged, the plea in equity has also been abolished.
A criminal defendant has some options in responding to charges made against him. The rules of CRIMINAL PROCEDURE in the federal courts and many state courts permit a defendant to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere, which means "I do not wish to contest it." If a defendant fails or refuses to enter any plea at all, the court will enter a plea of "not guilty"for that individual, and then the trial may begin.