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A gravamen is a grievance against someone which is used as the basis for legal proceedings. This term is also used specifically to refer to the most serious aspect of a grievance for the purpose of highlighting the key aspect of the charges or accusations. In order for a case to proceed to court, there must be a clear gravamen and it must be demonstrated that there is reasonable belief that the accused is the person who should be held accountable for it.
Something like negligence, kidnapping, or murder could be a gravamen. In a case where someone is accused of multiple crimes, the key crime is also usually the most serious one. For example, if someone is being brought to court to answer charges of kidnapping and obstruction of justice, the kidnapping charge is the gravamen because it is the most serious aspect of the charges.
The gravamen is the essence of the case, the element which brings people to court to try the issue. In addition, it is also the element which must be proved in court to the satisfaction of the judge and jury; individual pieces of supporting material may not always pass muster, but together the evidence provides a convincing case. Failure to demonstrate that an incident occurred and was committed by the accused means that the court rules in favor of the accused. Special care is taken when investigating and preparing to present a case to ensure that the court will be likely to rule against the accused.
This term is derived from the Latin word for “grievance.” Without a grievance, there is no cause for a case in court. In situations where it is believed that someone may have recourse to the court to resolve a dispute or problem, the essence of the case must be identified so that there are grounds to bring the dispute into court. Usually the gravamen is easy to identify; in a case where someone fails to fulfill a contract, for example, the gravamen is breach of contract.
People also sometimes utilize this word more generally in non-legal settings to talk about the most serious charge in claims that someone has behaved badly. For example, a parent scolding a child for taking the car without permission, getting into an accident, and leaving the house after curfew would stress that the accident is the most serious charge because it is the action which could have had fatal consequences.