Whenever a civil legal action is filed, the person who initiates the action is called the petitioner. The document filed to begin or open a civil case is called a petition or a complaint, depending on the jurisdiction and the cause of action being filed. In either case, the person who begins the action is the petitioner. Another word that is used synonymously with petitioner is plaintiff in many cases. A petitioner may also be someone who is petitioning the government itself for redress, as in a petition before the legislature.
The term "petitioner" is used because the person is essentially "petitioning" the court or government for some type of legal redress. Common examples of civil actions that are initiated by a petitioner include a divorce, a small claims complaint, or an adoption. Anytime someone is asking the court to order something done or order someone refrain from doing something, a petition or complaint must first be filed. There may be more than one petitioner, such as when a husband and wife jointly petition to adopt a child.
In a civil action where a petition or complaint is filed, the other party, or opposing party, is referred to as the respondent or the defendant. As a general rule, if the original document filed is a complaint, then the opposing party is referred to as the defendant. If the original pleading is a petition, then the opposing party is usually known as the respondent.
A petitioner may also be someone who petitions the government for redress by way of petitioning the legislature, senate, or even the town council. A petition may be filed asking the government to do something or change something. A petition may also be filed telling the government that the petitioners are opposed to a particular course of action that the government has taken or is planning to take.