Understand the Legal Elements of your Case Before Going to Court
Updated: Apr 30
Before you go to court, you need to know what kind of case type you have. Different case types have different legal elements. Start with a simple online search for articles and other materials that address situations like yours. Some of the keywords you can use would be "claim type," "cause of action," or "legal elements."
What Are Legal Elements?
Legal elements are the different parts of the legal claim or “cause of action” in a case. As a plaintiff, you will need to understand what kind of case you have so that you know what you need to prove. For example, if you are suing someone for breach of contract, then the elements you must prove are different than the elements you would have to prove if you were suing for fraud.
As a defendant, you will need to understand what kind of case you have so that you know what the other party needs to prove and what you need to disprove. For example, if you are being sued for breach of contract, knowing the elements the plaintiff will need to prove will guide how you disprove those elements.
Legal Elements in Breach of Contract Cases
To win in court, the plaintiff must prove every legal element of the claim type being made.
A breach of contract case type has four elements that need to be proved to satisfy the judge that the claim is valid and that they should rule in the plaintiff's favor:
There was an agreement
The plaintiff did what was promised
The defendant broke the agreement
The plaintiff suffered harm as a result of the defendant’s actions
You can think of legal elements as a checklist. The plaintiff should identify evidence supporting each element of the case, using as many sources of evidence as possible for each element. The judge uses all the evidence provided to confirm that the plaintiff and defendant had an agreement, that the plaintiff did what was promised in the agreement, that the defendant broke the agreement, and that the plaintiff suffered damages as a result. A judge can only find that the plaintiff's legal rights were violated if the plaintiff provides objective proof for each element.
As a plaintiff, knowing the legal elements will help you prepare to “make your case” since the judge will be evaluating your evidence in order to satisfy themself that your rights have been violated. As a defendant, knowing the legal elements will help you prepare to counter the statements the plaintiff will be making.
We will ask you questions about your dispute to figure out the case type of your dispute so you can be best prepared to sue or defend in court.
There are many types of evidence you can use to prove each of the legal elements. Common evidence types include:
1. Documents: These include copies of contracts, emails, letters, or faxes between the plaintiff and the defendant.
2. Text messaging or direct messages (DM): These can be used as evidence of an agreement or communication between the plaintiff and the defendant.
3. Pictures: Photographs can show before and after views to prove damages. Photographs are also useful in motor vehicle accident claims to show the extent of physical harm to a person or vehicle.
4. Witnesses: People can attend the trial and talk to the judge about what they have seen or heard related to the case.
You’ve likely heard that some evidence isn’t allowed in court. If your case is in small claims court, you won’t have to worry too much about this. Small claims hearings are simpler and less formal than other trials. Many formal rules for evidence do not apply in small claims courts. Most of the time, judges will allow you to submit all your evidence.
How do you go about finding the strongest evidence? First, you have to figure out what evidence you do have. Then you must evaluate each piece of evidence and select only those items that provide objective support for the claim you are making—support based on facts that are clear to anyone who sees them. Make sure all your evidence is directly related to at least one of the elements of your case; no judge wants to look at evidence that is unrelated to the case. Bring all your evidence—including witnesses or statements written by witnesses—with you to court on the day of the trial.
Example: Legal Elements and Evidence
To illustrate how legal elements and evidence work together, we will examine a case that involves a failure to repay a loan.
Let’s say you lent your friend Bob $500. Bob has not paid you back. You spoke with Bob and asked him to pay you but he has not given you back the money. You sent Bob a very civil and friendly demand letter, but he did not respond. You decide to sue Bob for your $500 in small claims court.
Bob broke your agreement by failing to pay you back. This is a breach of contract. As mentioned earlier, a breach of contract case has four elements that you need to prove to satisfy the judge that Bob owes you $500:
1. There was an agreement (the loan)
2. The plaintiff (you) did what was promised
3. The defendant (Bob) broke the agreement
4. The plaintiff (you) suffered harm as a result of the defendant’s (Bob’s) actions
Let’s go through what kind of evidence you might have for each of the four elements in this breach of contract case.
Legal Element 1: There was an agreement
The first element is the agreement. It can be a written contract or a verbal agreement; in either case, you must show that you and Bob were both aware of all the terms of the agreement—whether it was a loan or a gift, and how and when Bob agreed to pay you back.
What kind of agreement did you and Bob have, written or verbal?
Can you prove that Bob knew the money was a loan and not a gift? If so, how?
Examples of evidence that would prove the terms of the agreement may include:
Documents: You and Bob signed a written agreement or contract, and you can produce the original copy with both of your signatures on it. Or: You and Bob exchanged a series of emails or text messages in which you discussed and agreed to the terms of the agreement, and you can produce printed copies of those messages.
Electronic or voice messages: Bob left you a voicemail message in which he said he agreed to the terms that you discussed and asked for the money “on Friday,” and you can provide a recording of that message.
Witnesses: Someone was present or overheard you and Bob discussing the loan, and that person is willing to give evidence (“testify”) in court on your behalf.
Legal Element 2: The plaintiff did what was promised
The second legal element to prove is that the plaintiff did what they promised: You lent the money to Bob. What kind of objective evidence do you have to support this fact?
Evidence that might prove that you did what you promised may include:
Documents: Bank statements that show that a check was cashed, that cash was withdrawn from a bank ATM, or that an electronic transfer went from you to Bob for the amount discussed in the contract. (In addition, if you agreed to provide the money to Bob “on Friday,” check a calendar for the month in question, because bank statements do not usually name days of the week.) Or: Bob gave you a receipt when you gave him the money. Or: Bob sent you an email thanking you for the money.
Text messages: You can provide printed copies of text messages in which you and Bob talked about how to get him the money.
Electronic records: You used a money transfer app such as PayPal, Venmo, or Zelle, and you can obtain records, confirmations, or receipts showing the payment by you to Bob.
Electronic or voicemail messages: You have electronic or voicemail messages from Bob about how to deliver the money, or about where or when you would meet to deliver the money.
Witnesses: Someone else was present or someone else you know saw you give Bob the money, and that person is willing to give evidence (“testify”) in court on your behalf.
Legal Element 3: The defendant broke the agreement
The third legal element requires you to identify the part of the agreement that has been
broken. For example, if Bob was supposed to pay the money back all at once, can you prove he never did? Or, if your agreement allowed for small payments over a period of time, did Bob make any repayments? If Bob did repay some of the money, how can you prove that he stopped paying, and when?
What kind of written communication took place between the two of you after you realized he had breached the terms of your agreement?
Examples of evidence that might prove that Bob broke the agreement may include:
Documents: You have emails or letters from Bob apologizing that he could not make the payment in a particular month, or saying he wasn’t going to pay you back the money at all.
Text or voicemail messages: You have electronic messages from Bob apologizing for late payment or saying he wasn’t going to pay back the money.
Witnesses: Someone heard Bob tell you he wasn’t going to pay back the money, and that person is willing to give evidence (“testify”) in court on your behalf.
Legal Element 4: The plaintiff suffered harm as a result of the defendant’s actions (“Damages”)
If you have objective evidence proving the first three elements, then the fourth element, of harm or “damages”, usually follows naturally in the case of breach of contract. You may simply state that you were harmed because Bob didn’t pay you back the $500 that you lent to him: You suffered “damages” of $500.
There are other kinds of harm, but you should only mention them if you have objective proof that you suffered those damages. For example, Bob’s failure to repay you may have prevented you from making another investment or from offering a loan to someone else.
If you can show Bob knew you needed him to pay you back so you could make use of the money for some other purpose, you may be able to claim more than the face value of the amount he owes you. That is, you could ask for the dollar value that he still owes you plus the amount of losses that you can show you experienced due to Bob’s failure to repay you in the way you had agreed.
Remember, you need to first know what case type you have—this is your cause of action. You can find that out by looking online for cases like yours and seeing what law is used. Next, you need to know the legal elements for the case type that you intend to bring (as a plaintiff) or are being sued for (as a defendant). Legal elements are the different parts of the type of case, and they must all be proved by the plaintiff or disproved by the defendant.
Create a checklist and make sure that you have objective evidence for each of the elements. A single piece of evidence may work to prove or disprove one or more elements. The judge will use the evidence you provide to determine whether the plaintiff has proved all the elements. Presenting a judge with good evidence is the most powerful thing you can do to win your case. A judge can only rule in favor of the plaintiff if they are satisfied that the plaintiff has proven the law was broken and that the plaintiff proved, as a result, the damages being claimed.
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