Legal action refers to the process of instituting a court case. Within the United States and most developed countries, a court system exists that permits the state to try accused criminals in front of a jury or judge who determines guilt or innocence, and that permits individual parties to settle their differences with the help of a judge or jury. In the United States, there are two main types of legal action: public action and private action.
Public action occurs when the state institutes a legal proceeding against an individual. In other words, if a prosecutor requests an indictment and brings an accused criminal to court to stand before a jury of his peers and be judged, this constitutes legal action. Even a summons to appear in traffic court for a speeding ticket issued by a police official can be considered a form of legal action since the individual who receives the traffic ticket is mandated to appear before the court.
A legal action can also exist between private citizens as well. The legal system creates rights, obligations and duties of each citizen within the system. Those rights are protected by tort law, which allows someone to sue for monetary damages when he is injured by another person's negligence or intentional acts, and by contract law, which allows someone to sue if he is damaged as the result of the legally enforceable promises contained within a private contract he has created.
When someone wishes to bring an action in court, he must have suffered an actionable wrong. This means someone must have done something to him that the law recognizes as a wrong, and that the law can provide a remedy for. For example, if Mr. Smith asks his neighbor to borrow the lawn mower and the neighbor says no and Mr. Smith feels slighted, he cannot bring a case in court because no legal wrong has been committed. On the other hand, if Mr. Smith's neighbor signed a contract promising to lend Mr. Smith the lawn mower in exchange for Mr. Smith mowing his lawn and then the neighbor refuses, Mr. Smith can bring a case in court and sue to recover any damages he sustained as a result of the lack of use of the lawn mower.
Legal actions can also be instituted to stop or prevent improper behavior. For example, if someone believes his employee is about to go and work for a competitor and share trade secrets, the individual can bring a case before court to request the court preclude his employee from doing so. In such a situation, the court can issue an injunction, legally preventing the person from doing the act.