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From: Small Claims Court: Procedure and Practice (4th edn., 2017)

p. 84 Top defines cause of action as:

the factual and legal grounds for seeking a remedy from a court

p. 141 Bottom defines merits of the case as:

the legal principles upon which a party's assertion of rights is based

How do they differ?

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A cause of action would be a fact or facts which allows you the right to file an action against another person in order to get money, property, or the enforcement of some right (usually through an injunction). It also refers to the legal theory which forms the basis of the lawsuit.

While it is difficult to draw a clear distinction, the merits of the case can be distinguished from a cause of action as follows (just an example):

We have a contract and you do not hold up your end of the bargain. The fact that you did not do what the contract says you must do provides me the cause of action to file a lawsuit. During the trial, you demonstrate an affirmative defense showing you were forced into the contract under duress. The court, in deciding the case on its merits, or applying the legal principles of contract law, holds that the contract was therefore not enforceable (or there was no contract because one cannot be made under duress). You win, I lose and the case was decided on the merits.

However, if the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction or if you or I won on some procedural grounds, the case would have been dismissed or decided, but not "on its merits."

  • Thanks. But can't the defendant's affirmative defense (economic duress) be contemplated as a "cause of action" too, even if it's technically not? Then the plaintiff and defendant both have 1 "cause of action" that counterbalances. Thus the defendant wins. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Mar 26 '18 at 17:29
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    Did you file a complaint outlining the elements of your case and seek relief from the court? In the above example, you did not. Thus, it is not a cause of action. Rather, it is an affirmative defense because it was offered as a defense to a claim brought against you. – A.fm. Mar 26 '18 at 17:34
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    Another example. For a cause of action for the tort of libel, I must show that you published a harmful untruth about me. That forms my cause of action. A defense to that is consent; you show that I consented to that item's publication and you win the case on the merits. Had a procedural issue been the reason you won the case, it would not have been decided on the merits. Consent is by no means a cause of action, but rather, a defense. – A.fm. Mar 26 '18 at 17:37

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