Legal arguments are an essential part of any common law trial. Some arguments are oral, like those delivered in the course of a trial, while others are written in what is known as a legal brief. The brief sets the foundation of a party’s arguments for trial, and almost always includes case citations and analysis supporting the party’s view of the facts. Attorneys must file their briefs with the court and must serve a copy to all other parties well in advance of the actual trial date.
The legal brief is a party’s first opportunity to frame the dispute in a legal argument. Briefs typically include a statement of the facts, a recital of relevant law, and a list of cases that have interpreted that law. They set out a party’s argument, in essence telling the court how the court should decide the matter. Both parties to a trial write legal briefs outlining their respective positions, and they must exchange these briefs with each other before trial starts. This way, each side is prepared for the other’s arguments, and can plan accordingly for trial.
Aside from promoting fairness among the parties, briefs also serve an important role for judges. Most judges carry large caseloads, and hear cases that touch on many different types of law. Receiving briefs from both sides about the specific laws at issue in a certain case focuses the judge’s attention, and acts as an introduction to the matters at hand.
Most courts also allow non-parties to file legal briefs related to how a certain dispute should be resolved. Non-party briefs are called amicus curiae briefs. They are typically submitted by parties who have some stake or interest in the outcome, and are common in high-profile cases. Whether a court will accept or entertain an amicus curiae brief is generally a matter of discretion.
Each jurisdiction, and within each jurisdiction, some individual courts, have their own rules for how briefs must be formatted, when they must be filed, and whether reply briefs or amicus curiae briefs are permitted. Trial courts, county courts, appellate courts, and supreme courts all have unique rules for creating and filing briefs. A law brief from a party that is not properly formatted or filed may result in trial delay or case dismissal.
The legal brief may be called different things in different jurisdictions. In some courts, particularly those in Canada and Australia, a legal brief may be called a “factum” or a “memorandum of law.” So long as a document sets out the basic tenets of a case and is filed with the court in anticipation of trial, it is synonymous with “legal brief,” no matter what it is called.
Not all legal briefing is done within the context of a trial, however. In its most elemental sense, to brief something is simply to extract its key elements in order to create a concise summary. Lawyers and law students will often compose case briefs that summarize singular judicial decisions, either for personal or law firm use. Briefing a case usually involves condensing a significant judicial opinion into a few paragraphs of useful information. A case brief is never filed with a court.