This small guide has been compiled for the benefit of our current and prospective clients as many of these terms are beyond the understanding of lay persons, particularly when they have to go through court documents and pleadings.If you have a query involving any of these terms or a legal dispute that needs resolution, you are more than welcome to email us at [email protected]
AB INITIO: “from the beginning”
AB INITIO / VOID: Illegal from the beginning
ACTION: a lawsuit or proceeding in a court of law.
ACQUITTAL: A finding by a judge or jury that a person tried for committing a crime is not guilty.
AFFIDAVIT: a written statement under oath.
AGREEMENT: a verbal or written resolution of disputed issues.
ALIMONY: a payment of support provided by one spouse to the other.
ANSWER: A formal statement, generally written, stating the defense of a legal case.
ANNULMENT: a marriage can be dissolved in a legal proceeding in which the marriage is declared void, as though it never took place. In the eyes of the law, the parties were never married. It is available only under certain limited circumstances. Certain religions also offer annulments to members, the basis of an annulment from the church may be different than the legal basis of divorce or annulment.
APPEAL: A request to take a case to a higher court for review. No new evidence may be introduced during the appellate process; the reviewing court considers only whether errors occurred during prior proceedings.
APPELLATE COURT: A court having jurisdiction of appeals—not a trial court.
APPELLATE JURISDICTION: The power of a court to review a case that has already been tried by a lower court.
ARBITRATION: A form of alternate dispute resolution where the disputants present their dispute to an impartial third party for decision after a hearing where both sides have an opportunity to be heard. Arbitration may be binding or nonbinding based on the agreement of the parties.
ATTORNEY: A lawyer; one who is licensed to act as a representative for another in a legal matter or proceeding; one who is licensed to practice law.
BAIL: To set free a person arrested or imprisoned (pending trial or resolution of an appeal), in exchange for security such as cash. Bail is forfeited if the person fails to appear in court as directed.
BOND: In criminal law, a surety bond assures the appearance of the defendant or the payment of the defendant’s bail if the defendant fails to appear.
BRIEF: A written document presented to the court by a lawyer which sets forth both the facts of the case and the law which supports the lawyer’s case.
BURDEN OF PROOF: In the law of evidence, the necessity or duty of affirmatively proving a fact or facts in a dispute. Examples include “beyond a reasonable doubt” and “by a preponderance of the evidence.”
CERTIORARI: An original writ or court order commanding judges or officers of lower courts to certify or return records of proceedings in a cause for judicial review.
CIVIL CASE: A matter or case outside of the criminal practice pertaining to the rights and duties of persons. Examples include contract cases and lawsuits arising out of personal injury or property damage.
CHARGES: A formal accusation of having committed a criminal offense.
CODE: A collection of laws arranged into chapters, table of contents, and index, and published by legislative authority.
CODICIL: A supplement to a will.
COMMON LAW: Law based upon previous decisions of courts.
COMMON LAW MARRIAGE: Common law marriage comes about when a man and woman who are free to marry mutually agree to live together as husband and wife without the formal ceremony. The parties must hold themselves out to the public as being married. Common law marriages are invalid in many states.
COMPARATIVE NEGLIGENCE: A defense to negligence where fault is measured in percentages and any damages shall be reduced by that percentage. See also contributory negligence.
CONDONATION: the act of forgiving one’s spouse who has committed an act of wrongdoing that would constitute a ground for divorce. Condonation generally is proven by living and cohabiting with the spouse after learning that the wrongdoing was committed and may used as a defense to a divorce.
CONTEMPT OF COURT: An act which shows disrespect for the court’s authority. Civil contempt usually means a person has failed to obey a court order. Criminal contempt is when someone disobeys the court in the presence of the court. Contempt can be punished by a fine or imprisonment. One side can request that the court determine that the other side is in contempt and punish him or her.
CONTRACT: A mutual agreement between two or more parties, in which each party gives up something of value and gains another thing of value.
CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE: A complete defense to negligence when the defendant’s behavior causes an omission or neglect of reasonable precaution, care, or action, which is a proximate cause of his/her injury. Some states use this standard but most rely on the defense of comparative negligence.
CONVICTION: Finding that a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing a crime.
CORPORATION: A legal entity created under state law most commonly intended to be in business.
CRIMINAL CASE: A case concerning an act considered harmful to the general public that is forbidden by law and punishable by fine, imprisonment, or community service.
DAMAGES: An amount of money which may be recovered in the courts by any person who has suffered loss, detriment, or injury through the unlawful act or negligence of another.
DECREE: A decision or order of the court. A final decree is one which fully and finally disposes of litigation; an interlocutory decree is a preliminary decree which disposes of a particular issue within the litigation.
DEED: A written instrument transferring a piece of real property.
DEFAULT: A “default” in an action at law occurs when a defendant fails to appear at the trial or to plead within the time allowed. Typically, when a defendant defaults, the court enters an order in favor of the plaintiff.
DEFENDANT: A person sued in a civil suit or accused of a crime.
DEPOSITION: The testimony of a witness not taken in open court, but given under oath as a part of the discovery process. Deposition testimony may be introduced as evidence in a court proceeding.
DISCOVERY: The pretrial process in which one party gathers facts and information from the other party in preparation for trial.
DISSENT: A term denoting the disagreement of one or more judges of a court with the decision of the majority.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: A lawyer elected or appointed to serve as a prosecutor for the state in criminal cases. Also known as the state’s attorney.
DOCKET: A list of cases on a court calendar maintained by the clerk of court.
EN BANC: “On the bench;” all judges or justices of a court sitting together to hear a case.
EVIDENCE: A fact presented before a court such as a statement of a witness, an object, etc., that bears on or establishes a point in question.
FELONY: A crime considered to be of a graver nature than a misdemeanor. Examples of felonies include murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, burglary, robbery, and certain types of sexual abuse although different state legislatures may define different crimes as felonies.
GRAND JURY: A group of citizens whose duty it is to inquire into a crime to determine if an indictment against a suspected criminal is warranted.
GUARDIAN: A person vested with the power to take care of a disabled person or minor’s property and person.
GUARDIAN AD LITEM: A special guardian appointed by the court to represent children or disabled persons during the course of litigation.
HABEAS CORPUS: “You have the body.” A petition to bring a person before a court or a judge. In most common usage, it is directed to the official person detaining another, commanding that the person to produce the body of the prisoner or person detained so the court may determine if such a person had been denied his or her liberty without the process of law.
INDICTMENT: An accusation in writing found and issued by a grand jury, charging that a person named has done some act, or is guilty of some omission, which by law is a crime.
INDIGENT: One who is needy or poor without the financial ability to retain an attorney.
INFORMATION: A formal accusation of crime, based on an affidavit of a person allegedly having knowledge of the offense.
INTERLOCUTORY: Preliminary. An interlocutory appeal involves an appeal of a matter within a case before the case is concluded or final.
INTERROGATORIES: Written questions propounded by one party and served on an adversary, who must provide written answers under oath. A method of discovery.
JURISDICTION: The right and power to interpret and apply the law. The extent of authority or control of the court. Many types of jurisdiction exists including subject matter, personal, territorial, concurrent and appellate.
JURY: A number of people, selected according to law, and sworn to inquire of certain matters of fact and declare the truth upon evidence laid before them.
JUVENILE CASES: Cases involving children (under eighteen years of age), including children accused of delinquent acts or neglected or abused children.
LIEN: An encumbrance upon property, usually as security for a debt or obligation.
MANDAMUS: The name of a writ, which is issued from a court of superior jurisdiction, directed to a lower court or a public officer, commanding the performance of a particular act.
MECHANIC’S LIEN: A claim created by the statute which gives priority of payment for the price of work and materials for erecting and repairing building and improvements on land.
MEDIATION: A form of alternate dispute resolution where a neutral third party acts as an intermediary assisting disputants to settle their dispute.
MISDEMEANOR: Offenses considered less serious than felonies.
MOTION: An application to the court requesting action in a pending case. Usually, a motion concerns an issue with the court’s discretion.
NEGLIGENCE: The omission or neglect of reasonable precaution, care, or action.
NOLO CONTENDERE: A statement by a defendant to the effect that he or she will not challenge a criminal charge made by the government.
NOTICE OF APPEAL: A filing made with an appellate court to appeal a ruling made by a lower court.
OPINION: A formal statement by a judge or justice of the law bearing on a case.
ORDINANCE: A law passed by a city, town or county legislative body.
ORIGINAL JURISDICTION: The power of a court to hear a case for the first time instead of waiting for the case to be tried in a lower court.
PARENS PATRIAE: “Parents of the country.” The doctrine under which the court protects the interests of a juvenile or other persons under disability.
PAROLE: The supervised conditional release of a prisoner before the expiration of his/her sentence. If the parolee observes the conditions, he/she need not serve the rest of his/her term.
PARTY: A person, business, or government agency actively involved in the prosecution or defense of a legal proceeding.
PATENT: Government permission given to an inventor granting him/her the exclusive right to make or sell his/her invention for a term of years.
PECUNIARY: Consisting of money.
PERJURY: The criminal offense of making a false statement under oath.
PER SE: “Taken by itself.”
PERSON: In the legal context, “person” includes individuals and corporate groups.
PERSONAL PROPERTY: Tangible physical property (such as cars, clothing, furniture and jewelry) and intangible personal property (bank accounts, stocks and bonds). This does not include real property such as land or rights in land.
PERSONAL RECOGNIZANCE: In criminal proceedings, the pretrial release of a defendant without bail upon his/her promise to return to court.
PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE: The person who administers an estate, sometimes also known as Executor.
PETITIONER: The person filing an action in a court of original jurisdiction. Also called the Plaintiff or Complainant. The opposing party is called the respondent.
PLAINTIFF: The person who files the complaint in a civil lawsuit. Also called the Complainant or Petitioner.
PLEA: Defendant’s answer to the charge – guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere.
PLEA BARGAINING: The process through which an accused person and a prosecutor negotiate a mutually satisfactory disposition of a case. Usually it is a legal transaction in which a defendant pleads guilty in exchange for some form of leniency. It often involves a guilty plea to lesser charges or a guilty plea to some of the charges if other charges are dropped. Such bargains are not binding on the court.
PLEA NEGOTIATIONS: Negotiations arrived at by the state and the defense for a fair disposition of the case and requiring approval by the court.
PLEADING: A formal statement of facts and law, generally written, propounding the case of action or the defense of a legal case.
POLLING THE JURY: The act, after a jury verdict has been announced, of asking jurors individually whether they agree with the verdict.
POUR-OVER WILL: A will that leaves some or all estate assets to a trust established before the will-maker’s death.
POWER OF ATTORNEY: Formal authorization of a person to act in the interests of another person.
PRAECIPE: A writ commanding the Clerk of Court to issue a subpoena or summons.
PRELIMINARY HEARING: Synonymous with preliminary examinations; the hearing given before a magistrate or a judge to determine whether a person charged with a crime should be held for trial.
PRESENTENCE INVESTIGATION REPORT: A report, generally prepared by a probation officer, which presents pertinent information needed by a judge to sentence a person convicted of a crime.
PRETERMITTED CHILD: A child born after a will is executed, who is not provided for by the will. Most states have laws that provide for a share of estate property to go to such children.
PRE-TRIAL CONFERENCE: A meeting between the judge and the lawyers involved in a lawsuit to narrow the issues in the suit, agree on what will be presented at the trial, and make a final effort to settle the case without a trial.
PRECEDENT: A previously decided case that guides the decision of future cases.
PREEMPTORY CHALLENGE: A challenge that may be used to reject a certain number of prospective jurors without giving a reason.
PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE: Greater weight of the evidence; Often described as 50.1% of the evidence; the common standard of proof in civil cases.
PRIMA FACIE: “On the face of it.” So far as can be judged from the disclosure; presumably; a fact presumed to be true unless disproved by some evidence to the contrary.
PROBATE: The court-supervised process by which a will is determined to be the will-maker’s final statement regarding how the will maker wants his/her property distributed. Probate also means the process by which assets are gathered, the Personal Representative is appointed, applied to pay debts, taxes, and the expenses of administration; and distribution to those designated as beneficiaries in the will.
PROBATE ESTATE: Estate property that may be disposed of by a will.
PRO BONO PUBLICO: “For the public good.” Lawyers representing clients without a fee are said to be working pro bono publico.
PRO SE: “In one’s own behalf.” A person representing himself/herself in court without the benefit of a lawyer.
PROBABLE CAUSE: Reasonable belief that a crime was committed and that the named person committed the crime.
PROBATION: A form of criminal sentence in which an offender agrees to comply with certain conditions imposed by the court rather than being incarcerated.
PROSECUTE: To initiate legal or criminal court action against an accused.
PROSECUTOR: A trial lawyer representing the government in a criminal case and the interests of the state in civil matters. In criminal cases, the prosecutor has the responsibility of deciding who and when to prosecute. Often referred to the District Attorney or State’s Attorney.
PROXIMATE CAUSE: The act that caused an event to occur. A person generally is liable only if an injury was proximately caused by his/her action or by his/her failure to act when he/she had a duty to act.
PUBLIC DEFENDER: An attorney hired by the government to defend persons accused of crimes who are unable or unwilling to hire their own attorney. Typically, a person must meet income requirements to be eligible for such representation.
PUNITIVE DAMAGES: Damages in excess of actual damages that are assessed as a form of punishment. Typically, punitive damages apply when a defendant’s behavior is found to have been willful or malicious.
QUASH: To vacate or void a summons, subpoena, etc.
REAL PROPERTY: Land, buildings, and other improvements affixed to the land.
REASONABLE DOUBT: An accused person is entitled to acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, his/her guilt has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt; a doubt as would cause reasonable persons to hesitate.
REASONABLE PERSON: A phrase used to describe a hypothetical person who exercises qualities of attention, knowledge, intelligence, and judgment that society requires of its members for the protection of their own interest and the interests of others.
REBUT: Evidence disproving other evidence previously given or reestablishing the credibility of challenged evidence.
RECORD: All the documents and evidence plus transcripts of oral proceedings in a case.
RECUSAL: A judge excusing himself/herself from a case.
REDRESS: To set right; to remedy; to compensate; to remove the causes of a grievance.
RE-DIRECT EXAMINATION: Opportunity to present rebuttal evidence after one’s evidence has been subjected to cross-examination.
RELEASE ON OWN RECOGNIZANCE (ROR): Release of a prisoner by a judge with no bond requirement. See also Personal Recognizance.
REMAND: To send back. Usually it is an appellate court that remands a case for proceedings in the trial court consistent with the appellate court’s ruling.
REMEDY: Legal or judicial means by which a right or privilege is enforced or the violation of a right or privilege is prevented, redressed, or compensated.
REMITTITUR: The reduction by a judge of the damages awarded by a jury.
REMOVAL: The transfer of a case from one court to another. It may be the transfer of a state case to federal court for trial; in civil cases, because the parties are from different states; or from one county to another in cases where is a significant possibility that there could not be a fair trial in the original court.
REPLEVIN: An action for the recovery of a possession that has been wrongfully taken.
RESPONDENT: The person against whom an appeal is taken. See PETITIONER.
RETAINER: Act of the client in employing the attorney or counsel, and also denotes the fee which the client pays when he/she retains the attorney to act for him/her. This fee is deposited into a trust/escrow account until the fee is earned.
RESTITUTION: The act of giving the equivalent for any loss, damage, or injury. An amount of money which an offender is ordered to pay as a consequence of a crime. Restitution can include compensation to the victim of a crime or the state.
REVERSE: An action of a higher court in setting aside or revoking a lower court decision.
REVERSIBLE ERROR: A procedural error during a trial or hearing sufficiently harmful to justify reversing the judgment of a lower court.
REVOCABLE TRUST: A trust that the grantor may change or revoke.
REVOKE: To cancel or nullify a legal document.
ROBBERY: Felonious taking of another’s property, from his or her person or immediate presence and against his or her will, by means of force or fear.
RULES OF EVIDENCE: Standards governing whether evidence in civil or criminal case is admissible.
SENTENCE: Judgment formally pronounced by a judge upon defendant after the defendant’s conviction in the criminal prosecution.
SEQUESTER: To isolate. In high profile cases jurors are sometimes isolated to prevent them from being influenced by outside information. Witnesses may also be sequestered.
SERVICE OF PROCESS: The act of providing an opposing party with notice of a pleading or action to assure that the opposing party is aware of the action and is given an opportunity to appear.
STATUTE: A law adopted by the legislature.
STIPULATION: An agreement by attorneys/parties on opposite sides of a case as to any manner pertaining to the proceedings or trial.
TESTIMONY: Spoken evidence given by a confident witness, under oath, as distinguished by evidence derived by writings and other sources.
TORT: An injury or wrong committed against another person or another person’s property.
TRANSCRIPT: The official record of proceedings in a trial or hearing.
TRIAL INFORMATION: A document filed by the prosecutor, which states the charges and evidence against a defendant in a criminal case.
VERDICT: The formal decision or finding made by a jury and accepted by the court.
WARRANT: A writ or order authorizing an officer to make an arrest, conduct a search, or to perform some other designated act.
WILL: A written instrument directing the disposition of a person’s property after their death.
WITNESS: One who testifies to what he or she has seen, heard, or otherwise observed or testifies to his or her opinion based on a hypothetical statement.
WRIT: An order issued from a court requiring the performance of a specified act, or giving authority and commission to having it done.
SUMMONS: A form issued by the court requiring a person to respond to a pleading, usually attached to a complaint, petition or motion.