Dictionary of Legal Terms

Legal dictionary

Common Legal Terms

Listed below are more than 300 common legal terms in easy-to-understand language listed in alphabetical order.

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A fortiori – (ah-for-she-ory) prep. Latin for "with even stronger reason," which applies to a situation in which if one thing is true then it can be inferred that a second thing is even more certainly true.

A priori assumption – (ah-pree-ory) n. from Latin, an assumption that is true without further proof or need to prove it. For example: The Sun will set and nighttime will come.

A.K.A. – prep. abbreviation for "also known as" when someone uses different initials, a nickname, a maiden or married name.

Abate – v. to do away with a problem, such as a public or private nuisance or some structure built contrary to public policy.

Abatement – n. 1) the removal of a problem which is against public or private policy, or endangers others, including nuisances such as weeds that might catch fire on an otherwise empty lot; 2) an equal reduction of recovery of debts by all creditors when there are not enough funds or assets to pay the full amount; 3) an equal reduction of benefits to beneficiaries (heirs) when an estate is not large enough to pay each beneficiary in full.

Abet – v. to help someone commit a crime, including helping them escape from police or plan the crime.

Abeyance – 1) n. when the owner- ship of property has not been determined.

Abrogate – v. to annul or repeal a law or pass legislation that contradicts the prior law. Abrogate also applies to revoking or withdrawing conditions of a contract.

Abstract of judgment – An official copy of the contents of a civil judgment.

Abstract of conviction – An official copy of the contents of a criminal or traffic verdict and sentence.

Abstention doctrine – n. when the Supreme Court refuses to exercise its federal constitutional jurisdiction or declines to consider a question of state law arising from a case being appealed from a state court.

Abuse of discretion – n. a polite way of saying a trial judge has made such a bad mistake ("clearly against reason and evidence" or against established law) during a trial or on ruling on a motion that a person did not get a fair trial.

Accord and Satisfaction – An agreement between the parties whereby a claim or charge may be dismissed by the court upon a payment or other consideration given to the person injured.

Accused – The person against whom an accusation is made; one who is charged with a crime or traffic infraction.

Acknowledgement: The signature of a clerk or attorney certifying that the person filing the document has sworn that the contents are true, and/or that the document is signed by his or her free act and deed.

Acquittal is a judgment that a criminal defendant has not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Action – Proceeding in a court by which one party prosecutes another for the enforcement or protection of a right, or the redress or prevention of a civil wrong.

Adhesion Contract – A type of contract, a legally binding agreement between two parties to do a certain thing, in which one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to write the contract primarily to his or her advantage.

Adjournment: Postponement of a court session until another time or place.

Adjudicate – To pass on judicially, to decide, settle, or decree.

Adjudication: A decision or sentence imposed by a judge.

Adjudicatory Hearing: Juvenile court proceeding to determine whether the allegations made in a petition are true and whether the child/youth should be subject to orders of the court.

Ad litem  is a term used in law to refer to the appointment by a court of one party and to act in a lawsuit on behalf of another party such as a child or an incapacitated adult, who is deemed incapable of representing himself. An individual who acts in this capacity is generally called a guardian ad litem in such legal proceedings.

Admiralty – n. concerning activities which occur at sea, including on small boats and ships in navigable bays.

Admissible – A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases.

Adversary proceeding – A lawsuit arising in or related to a bankruptcy case that begins by filing a complaint with the court, that is, a "trial" that takes place within the context of a bankruptcy case.

Affiant – The person who makes and signs an affidavit.

Affidavit – A written statement of facts confirmed by the oath of the party making it. Affidavits must be notarized or administered by an officer of the court with such authority.

Affirmed – Judgment by appellate courts where the decree or order is declared valid and will stand as decided in the lower court.

Aggravating Factor – A fact or circumstance associated with a criminal act that makes it more serious or injurious.

Aggrieved party – One whose legal right is invaded by an act complained of.

Alford plea – A defendant’s plea that allows him to assert his innocence but allows the court to sentence the defendant without conducting a trial. Essentially, the defendant is admitting that the evidence is sufficient to show guilt. Such a plea is often made for purposes of negotiating a deal with the prosecutor for lesser charges or a sentence.

Alleged – Claimed; asserted; charged. (AllegationSomething that someone says happened.)

Alias – "Otherwise called," indicating one was called by one or the other of two names.

Alternate juror – A juror selected in the same manner as a regular juror who hears all the evidence but does not help decide the case unless called on to replace a regular juror.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) – A procedure for settling a dispute outside the courtroom. Most forms of ADR are not binding, and involve referral of the case to a neutral party such as an arbitrator or mediator.

Amend – To change.

Amicus curiae – Latin for "friend of the court." It is advice formally offered to the court in a brief filed by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case.

Answer – The formal written statement by a defendant responding to a civil complaint and setting forth the grounds for defense.
Apparent authority – n. the appearance of being the agent of another (employer or principal) with the power to act for the principal. Since under the law of agency the employer (the principal) is liable for the acts of his employee (agent), if a person who is not an agent appears to an outsider (a customer) to have been given authority by the principal, then the principal is stuck for the acts of anyone he allows to appear to have authority.

Appeal – A request made after a trial, asking another court (usually the court of appeals) to decide whether the trial was conducted properly. To make such a request is "to appeal" or "to take an appeal." Both the plaintiff and the defendant can appeal, and the party doing so is called the appellant. Appeals can be made for a variety of reasons including improper procedure and asking the court to change its interpretation of the law.

Appeal Bond: Money paid to the court while taking an appeal to cover costs and damages to the other party, if the appeal is not successful.

Appellant – The party who appeals a district court's decision, usually seeking reversal of that decision.

Appellate – About appeals; an appellate court has the power to review the judgment of another lower court or tribunal.

Appellate court – n. a court of appeals which hears appeals from lower court decisions. The term is often used in legal briefs to describe a court of appeals.

Appellee – The party who opposes an appellant's appeal, and who seeks to persuade the appeals court to affirm the district court's decision.

Appreciate – v. to increase in value over a period of time through the natural course of events, including inflation, greater rarity, or public acceptance.

Arbitration – n. a mini-trial, which may be for a lawsuit ready to go to trial, held in an attempt to avoid a court trial and conducted by a person or a panel of people who are not judges.

Arraignment – A proceeding in which an individual who is accused of committing a crime is brought into court, told of the charges, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Arrest – To deprive a person of his liberty by legal authority.

Arrest warrant – A written order directing the arrest of a party. Arrest warrants are issued by a judge after a showing of probable cause.

Assets– Property of all kinds, including real and personal, tangible and intangible.

Assume – An agreement to continue performing duties under a contract or lease.

At will employment – n. a provision found in many employment contracts which suggest the employee works at the will of the employer, and which the employers insert in order to avoid claims of termination in breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, or discrimination. Inclusion of such a term puts the burden on the discharged employee to show that he or she had reasons to believe the employment was permanent.

Attachment – The act or process of taking, apprehending, or seizing persons or property, by virtue of a writ, summons, or other judicial order, and bringing the same into the custody of the law; used either for the purpose of bringing a person before the court, of acquiring jurisdiction over the property seized, to compel an appearance, to furnish security for debt or costs, or to arrest a fund in the hands of a third person who may become liable to pay it over.

Attest – v. 1) to confirm (usually in writing) that a document is genuine. 2) to bear witness that someone actually signed a document, such as a will.

Attractive nuisance doctrine – n. a legal doctrine which makes a person negligent for leaving a piece of equipment or other condition on property which would be both attractive and dangerous to curious children.

Automatic stay – An injunction that automatically stops lawsuits, foreclosures, garnishments, and most collection activities against the debtor the moment a bankruptcy petition is filed.


Bail – Security given for the release of a criminal defendant or witness from legal custody (usually in the form of money) to secure his/her appearance on the day and time appointed.

Bail Bondsperson: A person who lends money to a defendant to pay for bail.

Bailment – n. 1) the act of placing property in the custody and control of another, usually by agreement in which the holder (bailee) is responsible for the safekeeping and return of the property.

Bankruptcy – Refers to statutes and judicial proceedings involving persons or businesses that cannot pay their debts and seek the assistance of the court in getting a fresh start. Under the protection of the bankruptcy court, debtors may discharge their debts, perhaps by paying a portion of each debt. Bankruptcy judges preside over these proceedings.

Bankruptcy administrator – An officer of the Judiciary serving in the judicial districts of Alabama and North Carolina who, like the United States trustee, is responsible for supervising the administration of bankruptcy cases, estates, and trustees; monitoring plans and disclosure statements; monitoring creditors' committees; monitoring fee applications; and performing other statutory duties.

Bankruptcy Code – The informal name for title 11 of the United States Code (11 U.S.C. §§ 101-1330), the federal bankruptcy law.

Bankruptcy court – The bankruptcy judges in regular active service in each district; a unit of the district court.

Bankruptcy estate – All interests of the debtor in property at the time of the bankruptcy filing. The estate technically becomes the temporary legal owner of all of the debtor's property.

Bankruptcy judge – A judicial officer of the United States district court who is the court official with decision-making power over federal bankruptcy cases.

Bankruptcy petition – A formal request for the protection of the federal bankruptcy laws. (There is an official form for bankruptcy petitions.)

Bankruptcy trustee – A private individual or corporation appointed in all Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases to represent the interests of the bankruptcy estate and the debtor's creditors.

Bar: Refers to attorneys as a group.

Bench trial – Trial without a jury in which a judge decides the facts. In a jury trial, the jury decides the facts. Defendants will occasionally waive the right to a jury trial and choose to have a bench trial.

Beyond a reasonable doubt – Standard required to convict a criminal defendant of a crime. The prosecution must prove the guilt so that there is no reasonable doubt to the jury that the defendant is guilty.

Bifurcation is a judge's ability to divide a trial into two parts so as to render a judgment on a set of legal issues without looking at all aspects. Frequently, civil cases are bifurcated into separate liability and damages proceedings. Criminal trials are also often bifurcated into guilt and sentencing phases, especially in capital cases.

Bill of particulars – A written statement or specification of the details of the demand for which an action at law is brought.

Bivens action refers to a lawsuit which is brought to redress a federal official's violation of a constitutional right. Bivens action allows federal officials to be sued in a specific manner, similar to one prescribed at 42 USCS § 1983 for state officials violating a person's constitutional rights under color of state law.

Binding precedent – A prior decision by a court that must be followed without a compelling reason or significantly different facts or issues. Courts are often bound by the decisions of appellate courts with authority to review their decisions. For example, district courts are bound by the decisions of the court of appeals that can review their cases, and all courts – both state and federal – are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bond – A certificate or evidence of a debt with a sum fixed as a penalty, which contains a written agreement binding the parties to pay the debt, conditioned, however, that the payment of the penalty may be avoided by the performance of certain acts by one or more of the parties.

Bond Review: A hearing for a judge to decide if the defendant’s bond amount needs to be changed.

Bondsman – A professional surety who has entered into a bond as surety. See: Bail Bondsperson

Breach – The breaking or violating of a law, right, or duty, either by commission or omission.

Brief – A written statement submitted by the lawyer for each side in a case that explains one side's legal and factual arguments to the judge(s) why they should decide the case (or a particular

Burden of proof – The duty to prove disputed facts. In civil cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt. (See standard of proof.)


Calendar – A list of court cases scheduled for a specific date and time; the civil and family court docket.

Calendar Call: The calling of cases scheduled for the day, usually done at the beginning of each court day.

Capias Mittimus: A civil arrest warrant used to get a person physically into court to respond to a specific case or claim.

Capital offense – A crime punishable by death. In the federal system, it applies to crimes such as first degree murder, genocide, and treason.

Case: A lawsuit or action in a court.

Casefile – A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.

Case law – The use of previous court decisions to determine how other law (such as statutes) should apply in a given situation. A synonym for legal precedent. Akin to common law.

CaseloadThe number of cases handled by a judge or a court.

Cause of action – A legal claim.

Certify: To testify in writing; to make known or establish as a fact.

Certiorari – Latin, meaning "to be more fully informed." A writ or order by which a higher court reviews a decision of a lower court. If an appellate court has the power to review cases at its discretion, certioari is the formal instrument by which that power gets used. A writ of certiorari orders a lower court to deliver its record in a case so that the higher court may review it.

Chambers – A judge's office.

Chapter 7 – The chapter of the Bankruptcy Code providing for "liquidation," that is, the sale of a debtor's nonexempt property and the distribution of the proceeds to creditors. In order to be eligible for Chapter 7, the debtor must satisfy a "means test." The court will evaluate the debtor's income and expenses to determine if the debtor may proceed under Chapter 7.

Chapter 9 – The chapter of the Bankruptcy Code providing for reorganization of municipalities (which includes cities and towns, as well as villages, counties, taxing districts, municipal utilities, and school districts).

Chapter 11 – A reorganization bankruptcy, usually involving a corporation or partnership. A Chapter 11 debtor usually proposes a plan of reorganization to keep its business alive and pay creditors over time. Individuals or people in business can also seek relief in Chapter 11.

Chapter 13 – The chapter of the Bankruptcy Code providing for the adjustment of debts of an individual with regular income, often referred to as a "wage-earner" plan. Chapter 13 allows a debtor to keep property and use his or her disposable income to pay debts over time, usually three to five years.

Charge – The law that the police believe the defendant has broken.

Charge to the jury – The judge's instructions to the jury concerning the law that applies to the facts of the case on trial.

Chattels: All property except real property; personal property. For example: jewelry, clothing, furniture, and appliances.

Chief judge – The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of a court. The chief judge also decides cases, and the choice of chief judges is determined by seniority.

Circumstantial evidence – All evidence that is not direct evidence (such as eyewitness testimony).

Civil Action: A lawsuit other than a criminal case. Includes family actions (divorces, child support, etc) and small claims cases, although these are both separately designated.

Claim – A creditor's assertion of a right to payment from a debtor or the debtor's property.

Class action – A lawsuit in which one or more members of a large group, or class, of individuals or other entities sue on behalf of the entire class. The district court must find that the claims of the class members contain questions of law or fact in common before the lawsuit can proceed as a class action.

Clerk of court – An officer appointed by the court to work with the chief judge in overseeing the court's administration, especially to assist in managing the flow of cases through the court and to maintain court records. The clerk's office is often called a court's central nervous system.

Collateral -Property that is promised as security for the satisfaction of a debt.

Common law – The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States. It is based on court decisions by judges, rather than statutes passed by the legislature.

Community service – A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to work – without pay – for a civic or nonprofit organization.

Complaint – A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant by the plaintiff stating the wrongs allegedly committed.

Contempt of court – Any act which is calculated to embarrass, hinder, or obstruct the court in administration of justice, or which is calculated to lessen its authority or its dignity. Contempt of court is an act of disobedience or disrespect towards the judicial branch of the government, or an interference with its orderly process. It is an offense against a court of justice or a person to whom the judicial functions of the sovereignty have been delegated.

Continuance – Decision by a judge to postpone trial until a later date.

Contra proferentem (Latin: "against the offeror"), also known as "interpretation against the draftsman", is a doctrine of contractual interpretation providing that, where a promise, agreement or term is ambiguous, the preferred meaning should be the one that works against the interests of the party who provided the wording

Contract – An agreement between two or more persons that creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.

Contributory Negligence – A legal doctrine which states that, in a civil action based on negligent conduct, the plaintiff may not recover from the defendant if the plaintiff was also negligent.

Conviction – A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Costs: Expenses in prosecuting or defending a case in court. Usually does not include attorney’s fees.

Counsel – Legal advice; a term used to refer to lawyers in a case.

Count – An allegation in an indictment or information, charging a defendant with a crime. An indictment or information may contain allegations that the defendant committed more than one crime. Each allegation is referred to as a count.

Counterclaim – A claim that a defendant makes against a plaintiff. Counterclaims can often be brought within the same proceedings as the plaintiff’s claims.

Court – Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs."

Court Clerk: The person who maintains the official court record of your case. The court clerks’ office receives all court papers and assigns hearing dates.

Court reporter – A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court and produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.

Crime – A positive or negative act in violation of penal law; an offense against the state classified either as a felony or misdemeanor.

Cross-claim – An expansion of the original action in which a claim is brought by a defendant against a third party not originally sued by the plaintiff in the same action or against a co-defendant or both concerning matters in question in the original action.

Cross-examine – Questioning of a witness by the attorney for the other side.


Damages – Money paid by defendants to successful plaintiffs in civil cases to compensate the plaintiff, if the plaintiff has won, for their injuries. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).

Declaratory judgment – A judge's statement about someone's rights. For example, a plaintiff may seek a declaratory judgment that a particular statute, as written, violates some constitutional right.

De facto – Latin, meaning "in fact" or "actually." Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.

Default: To fail to respond or answer to the plaintiff’s claims by filing the required court document; usually an Appearance or an Answer.

Default judgment – A judgment awarding plaintiff the relief sought in the complaint rendered because of the defendant's failure to answer or appear.

Defendant – In a civil suit, the person complained against; in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.

Defense table – The table where the defense lawyer sits with the defendant in the courtroom.

Dejure – Latin, meaning "in law." Something that exists by operation of law.

Delinquent: In civil or family cases, failing to pay an amount of money when due: In juvenile cases, a child who violated a law, local ordinance, or an order of the Superior Court.

Demurrer – A motion to dismiss a case because the claim is legally insufficient.

Denovo – Latin, meaning "anew." A trial de novo is a completely new trial. Appellate review de novo implies no deference to the trial judge's ruling.

Deposition – An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial.

Dicta – The part of a judicial opinion which is merely a judge's editorializing and does not directly address the specifics of the case at bar; extraneous material which is merely informative or explanatory. Dicta are judicial opinions expressed by the judges on points that do not necessarily arise in the case.

Direct examination – The questioning of a witness by the party who called him or her, in a trial.

Direct evidence – Evidence that supports a fact without an inference.

Discovery – Procedures used to obtain disclosure and examination of facts and documents and other evidence, before trial, in possession of the opponents to help prepare for trial.

Dismissal with prejudice – Court action that prevents an identical lawsuit from being filed later.

Dismissal without prejudice – Court action that allows the later filing.  A judges decision to end the case which permits the complainant or prosecutor to renew the case later. In contrast, dismissal "with prejudice" prevents the complainant or prosecutor to bring or maintain the same claim or action again.

Dispose: Ending a legal case or a judicial proceeding.

Disposition: The manner in which a case is settled or resolved.

Dissolution: The legal end of a marriage, also called a divorce.

Docket – A log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.

Due process – In criminal law, the constitutional guarantee that a defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial. In civil law, the legal rights of someone who confronts an adverse action threatening liberty or property.


Elements – Facts or circumstances that define a crime, each of which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to result in a conviction.

Emancipated Minor: A person under the legal majority age of 18 who is granted most rights and legal privileges of an adult.

Emancipation: The release of a youth from the legal authority and control of the youth's parents and the corresponding release of the youth’s parents from their obligations to the youth.

Eminent Domain – The power of the government to take private property for public use, with compensation. The procedure for taking property under eminent domain is called condemnation, and is reviewed by circuit courts.

En banc – "In the bench" or "full bench." Refers to court sessions with the all judges of an appellate court sitting together to hear a case, rather than the usual quorum. U.S. courts of appeals usually sit in panels of three judges, but may expand to a larger number in certain cases they deem important enough to be decided by the entire court. They are then said to be sitting en banc.

Enjoin – To order a person to cease performing a certain act. Circuit courts may enjoin a person from acting in certain cases.

Equity – A body of civil law concerned with doing justice where money is inadequate or inappropriate as a remedy. Examples of equitable actions include divorce and injunctions. Equity cases are handled by circuit courts.

Escrow – Money or other property held upon agreement of the parties by a neutral third party, and released according to the agreement upon the fulfillment of its terms.

Estate – The property owned by a person, in his or her name, at the time of the person's death. Estates and wills are handled by circuit courts.

Et seq – Of sequential things, such as pages and lists) And that which follows. The phrase et seq. is used in references made to particular pages or sections of cases, articles, regulations, or statutes to indicate that the desired information is continued on the pages or in the sections following a designated page or section, as "p. 238 et seq." or "section 43 et seq."

Eviction – The legal process by which one recovers land or a dwelling from another.

Evidence – Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case for one side or the other.

Exclusionary rule – Doctrine that says evidence obtained in violation of a criminal defendant's constitutional or statutory rights is not admissible at trial.

Exculpatory evidence – Evidence which tends to show the defendant’s innocence.

Execute – To enforce a civil judgment by seizure and either transfer or liquidation of the judgment debtor's assets through post-trial judicial process.

Executor – A person named in a will who administers the estate of a deceased person. An executor must "qualify" before the circuit court where the will is filed.

Exparte – A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.

Expungement – A process by which a record, or a portion thereof, is officially erased or removed after the defendant is not convicted. Criminal record expungement requests are heard by circuit courts, and, under certain conditions, by the general district court.

Extradition – The surrender by one state to another of an individual accused or convicted of an offense outside its own territory and within the territorial jurisdiction of the other, which, being competent to try and punish him, demands the surrender.

Execution of judgment – The process of putting into effect the judgment of the court in civil cases; usually by garnishment or levy, through post-trial, statutory enforcement procedures requiring the forcible removal and disposal of the property of the losing party.


Failure to Appear: In a civil case, failing to file an Appearance form. In a criminal case, failing to come to court for a scheduled hearing.

Federal question – Jurisdiction given to federal courts in cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties. In some cases, state courts can decide these issues, too, but the cases can always be brought in federal courts.

Felony – A crime punishable by death or confinement in the penitentiary carrying a penalty of more than a year in prison.

Felony Murder: A murder committed while the person is also committing a felony.

Fiduciary – A person who has a legal and ethical duty to act in the best interests of another person. Examples include an executor or a guardian.

File – To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court to enter into the files or records of a case. Lawyers must file a variety of documents throughout the life of a case.

Finding – The result of the deliberations of a court.

Foreclosure: A court order ending the legal ownership of property.

Foreman: An elected member of a jury who delivers the verdict to the court.

Fraud in the factum– is a legal defense, and occurs where A makes/signs an agreement, but either does not realize that it is supposed to be a contract, or does not understand the nature/content of the agreement, because of some false information that B gave to A.

Fraud in the inducement– is an equitable defense, and occurs when A enters into an agreement, knowing that it is supposed to be a contract and (at least having a rough idea) what the agreement is about, but the reason A signed/made the agreement was because of some false information that B gave to A.


Garnishee – One garnished; a person against whom process of garnishment is issued; one who has money or property in his possession belonging to a judgment debtor, or who owes the judgment debtor a debt, which money, property, or debt is attached in his hands, with notice to him not to deliver or pay over to the judgment debtor the amount claimed in the garnishment summons until the judgment in the suit is entered.

Garnishment – A statutory post-judgment proceeding in which a third party who holds property, money or credits belonging to the judgment debtor is required to surrender such property, money or credits (to the extent of the judgment) to the court or sheriff for application against the judgment awarded against the judgment debtor.

Grand jury – A body of 16-23 citizens in the federal court system who listen to evidence of criminal allegations, which are presented by the government, and determines whether there is probable cause to believe the offense was committed. A grand jury is so named because traditionally it has a greater number of jurors than a trial jury. As it is used in federal criminal cases, "the government" refers to the lawyers of the U.S. Attorney's office who are prosecuting the case. Grand jury proceedings are closed to the public, and the person suspected of having committed the crime is not entitled to be present or have an attorney present. States are not required to use grand juries, but the federal government must do so under the Constitution.

Grievance: A complaint filed against an attorney or judge, claiming an ethics violation.

Guardian ad litem A lawyer appointed to defend or prosecute a case on behalf of a party who is incapacitated by a young age or other condition. When a person involved in a suit cannot adequately represent his or her own interests, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem to protect the person's interests.

Guilty – Responsible for committing a criminal offense or a traffic infraction. The word used by an accused in pleading to the charges when he confesses to committing the crime of which he is charged. It is also used by the judge if he finds that the accused committed a criminal offense or a traffic infraction.


Habeas corpus – Latin, meaning "you have the body." A writ of habeas corpus generally is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner's continued confinement. A prisoner wanting to argue that there is not sufficient cause to be imprisoned orsay their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights in some way would file a writ of habeas corpus. It may also be used to bring a person in custody before the court to give testimony, or to be prosecuted.

Hearsay– Statements or evidence presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but learned about it through secondhand information such as another’s statement, a newspaper, or a document. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in court, but there are many exceptions to that rule.

Hung Jury: A jury whose members cannot reconcile their differences of opinion and thus cannot reach a verdict.


Impeachment – (1) The process of calling something into question, as in "impeaching the testimony of a witness." (2) The constitutional process whereby the House of Representatives may "impeach" (accuse of misconduct) high officers of the federal government for trial in the Senate.

Incarceration – Imprisonment; confinement in a jail or penitentiary.

Inculpatory evidence – Evidence which tends to show the defendant’s guilt.

Incamera – Latin, meaning in a judge's chambers. Often means outside the presence of a jury and the public. In private.

Inculpatory evidence – Evidence indicating that a defendant did commit the crime.

Indemnify – To shift responsibility for a loss from the person held legally responsible to another party.

Indictment – The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies.

Indigent – In a general sense, one who is needy and poor, or one who has insufficient property to furnish him a living nor anyone able to support him or to whom he is entitled to look for support.

In forma pauperis – In the manner of a pauper. Permission given to a person to sue without payment of court fees on claim of indigence or poverty.

Information – A formal accusation by a government attorney that the defendant committed a misdemeanor.

Infraction – A petty crime or a minor breaking of rules; less serious than a misdemeanor or felony.

Initial hearing – Court proceeding in which the defendant learns of his rights and the charges against him and the judge decides bail.

Injunction – An order of the court prohibiting (or compelling) the performance of a specific act to prevent irreparable damage or injury.

Interrogatories – Written questions asked to one party by an opposing party, who must answer them in writing under oath. Interrogatories are a part of discovery in a lawsuit.

Interview – A meeting with the police or prosecutor.

In re, Latin for "in the matter [of]" . In jurisprudence, in re: is used to indicate that a judicial proceeding may not have formally designated adverse parties or is otherwise uncontested. The term is commonly used in case citations of probate proceedings.

Issue – (1) The disputed point in a disagreement between parties in a lawsuit. (2) To send out officially, as in to issue an order.

Inter alia (in-tur eh-lee-ah) prep. Latin for "among other things." This phrase is often found in legal pleadings and writings to specify one example out of many possibilities.


Judge – Government official with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts. Judicial officers of the Supreme Court and the highest court in each state are called justices.

Judgment – The official decision of a court finally determining the respective rights and claims of the parties to a suit.

Jurisdiction – (1) The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case. Concurrent jurisdiction exists when two courts have simultaneous responsibility for the same case. Some issues can be heard in both state and federal courts. The plaintiff initially decides where to bring the suit, but in some cases, the defendant can seek to change the court. (2) The geographic area over which the court has authority to decide cases. A federal court in one state, for example, can usually only decide a case that arose from actions in that state. It also is used as a synonym for venue.

Jurisprudence – The study of law and the structure of the legal system.

Juristic person – a body of persons, a corporation, a partnership, or other legal entity that is recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties. (called also artificial person, fictitious person)

Juror – A person who is on the jury.

Jury–The group of persons selected according to law to hear the evidence in a trial and sworn to inquire into and declare a verdict on matters of fact. State court juries can be as small as six jurors in some cases. Federal juries for civil suits must have six jurors criminal suits must have twelve.

Jury instructions – A judge's explanation and directions to the jury before it begins deliberations of the factual questions it must answer, the legal rules that it must apply and the law governing the case. Each party suggests jury instructions to the judge, but the judge chooses the final wording.

Jury pool – The group of people from which the actual jury is chosen. The jury pool is randomly selected from a source such as voter registration banks. Lawyers in the case choose the actual jurors from the jury pool through a process called voir dire.


Lack of jurisdiction – The phrase may mean lack of power to act in a particular manner or to give certain kinds of relief. It may consist of a court's total lack of power to act at all, or lack of power to act in particular cases because the parties have not complied with conditions essential to the exercise of jurisdiction.

Lawsuit – A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty, resulting in harm to the plaintiff.

Law clerk (or staff attorney) – Assist judges with research and drafting of opinions.

Legal Aid – Legal services are available in some areas to persons unable to afford an attorney. Legal aid offices handle only civil matters.

Lesser Included Offense – A less serious criminal charge that includes some of the same elements as the original charge.

Librarian – Meets the informational needs of the judges and lawyers.

Lien – A charge on specific property that is designed to secure payment of a debt or performance of an obligation. A debtor may still be responsible for a lien after a discharge.

Litigant – A party to a lawsuit; one engaged in litigation.

Litigation – A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.


Mandamus – a judicial writ issued as a command to an inferior court or ordering a person to perform a public or statutory duty.

Manslaughter – The unjustifiable, inexcusable, and intentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation, and malice. The unlawful killing of a human being without any deliberation, which may be involuntary, in the commission of a lawful act without due caution and circumspection, or otherwise in circumstances not amounting to murder.

Magistrate judges – Judicial officers who assist U.S. district court judges in getting cases ready for trial. They may decide some criminal and civil trials when both parties agree to have the case heard by a magistrate judge instead of a district court judge.

Mechanic's lien – A claim created by law for the purpose of securing priority of payment of the price or value of work performed and materials furnished in building or repairing a structure or personal property.

Mediation – A form of dispute resolution that takes place outside of court where a neutral third party helps the parties reach a settlement.

Misdemeanor – Usually a petty offense, a less serious crime than a felony, punishable by less than a year of confinement.

Mistrial – An invalid trial caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again, beginning with the selection of a new jury.

Mitigating Factor – A fact or circumstance associated with a criminal act that, while not an excuse or justification, may reduce its severity and result in a lesser sentence.

Moot – Not subject to a court ruling because the controversy has not actually arisen, or has ended.

Motion – A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case. Motions can be filed before, during, and after trial.

Motion to lift the automatic stay – A request by a creditor to allow the creditor to take action against the debtor or the debtor's property that would otherwise be prohibited by the automatic stay.

Motion in Limine – A pretrial motion requesting the court to prohibit the other side from presenting, or even referring to, evidence on matters said to be so highly prejudicial that no steps taken by the judge can prevent the jury from being unduly influenced.


Negligence – Failure to exercise that degree of care which a reasonable person would have exercised given the same circumstances.

Next Friend – A person who brings an action or handles matters for the benefit of a minor or a person who is legally incompetent, without formal appointment by the court.

Nolo contendere – No contest. Has the same effect as a plea of guilty as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but the plea may not be considered an admission of guilt for any other purpose. Sometimes, a guilty plea could later be used to show fault in a lawsuit, but the plea of nolo contendere forces the plaintiff in the lawsuit to prove that the defendant committed the crime.

Nolle prosequi -(Classical Latin) is legal phrase meaning "be unwilling to pursue", a phrase amounting to "do not prosecute".

Notary – A public officer whose function it is to administer oaths; to attest and certify, certain classes of documents; to take acknowledgments, and certify the same.

Notice – Formal notification of a legal proceeding or determination.

Notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) – a public notice issued by law when one of the independent agencies of the United States government wishes to add, remove, or change a rule or regulation as part of the rulemaking process.

Novation – The substitution of a new contract for an old one.

Nunc pro tunc ("Now for then") – An order which is retroactively effective.


Oath – A promise to tell the truth.

Objection – A protest by an attorney, challenging a statement or question made at trial. Common objections include an attorney “leading the witness” or a witness making a statement that is hearsay. Once an objection is made, the judge must decide whether to allow the question or statement.

Oligopoly – A market condition in which there are but a few sellers of a specific product or service that control the price.

Opinion – A judge's written explanation of a decision of the court. In an appeal, multiple opinions may be written. The court’s ruling comes from a majority of judges and forms the majority opinion. A dissenting opinion disagrees with the majority because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law on which the decision is based. A concurring opinion agrees with the end result of the court but offers further comment possibly because they disagree with how the court reached its conclusion.

Oral argument – An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court in an appeal and also to answer the judges' questions.

Ordinance – The enactments of the legislative body of a local government.

Ore tenusOral. Used as a technical term to describe a hearing or pleading which is orally presented.

Original jurisdiction – Jurisdiction in the first instance; determines which court will hear a case first. To take cognizance of a cause at its inception, try it, and pass upon the law and facts.


Panel – (1) In appellate cases, a group of judges (usually three) assigned to decide the case; (2) In the jury selection process, the group of potential jurors.

Parole – In criminal law, a conditional release. If prisoner makes good, he will receive an absolute discharge from balance of sentence, but, if he does not, he will be returned to serve unexpired time.

Parol Evidence Rule – is a substantive common law rule in contract cases that prevents a party to a written contract from presenting extrinsic evidence that contradicts or adds to the written terms of the contract that appears to be whole.

Parties – Plaintiffs and defendants (petitioners and respondents) to lawsuits, also known as appellants and appellees in appeals, and their lawyers.

Peremptory challenge – A district court may grant each side in a civil or criminal trial the right to exclude a certain number of prospective jurors without cause or giving a reason.

Perjury – A criminal offense committed by giving a false statement given under oath.

Petit jury (or trial jury) – A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons. Federal civil juries consist of six persons.

Plaintiff – The person who files the complaint in a civil lawsuit.

Plea – In a criminal case, the defendant's statement pleading "guilty" or "not guilty" in answer to the charges in open court. A plea of nolo contendere or an Alford plea may also be made. A guilty plea allows the defendant to forego a trial.

Plea deal (or plea bargain or agreement) – Agreement between the defendant and prosecutor where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a concession by the prosecutor. It may include lesser charges, a dismissal of charges, or the prosecutor’s recommendation to the judge of a more lenient sentence.

Pleadings – Written statements of the parties in a civil case of their positions. In civil courts, the principal pleadings are the complaint and the answer.

Power of Attorney – Authorization given by one person allowing another to take action on their behalf.

Precedent – A court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case, unless a party can show that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way. Some precedent is binding, meaning that it must be followed. Other precedents need not be followed by the court but can be considered influential.

Preferential debt payment-A debt payment made to a creditor in the 90-day period before a debtor files bankruptcy (or within one year if the creditor was an insider) that gives the creditor more than the creditor would receive in the debtor's chapter 7 case.

Procedure – The rules for the conduct of a lawsuit; there are rules of civil, criminal, evidence, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure.

Preliminary hearing – A hearing where the judge decides whether there is enough evidence to require the defendant to go to trial. Preliminary hearings do not require the same rules as trials. For example, hearsay is often admissible during the preliminary hearing but not at trial.

Preponderance – Greater weight of evidence, or evidence which is more credible and convincing to the mind.

Prima facieEvidence good and sufficient on its face. Accepted as correct until proved otherwise.

Pretrial conference – A meeting of the judge and lawyers to discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, to review evidence and witnesses, to set a timetable, and to discuss the settlement of the case.

Probable cause – An amount of suspicion leading one to believe certain facts are probably true. The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause for the issuance of an arrest or search warrant.

Probation – A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which the court releases convicted defendants under supervision as long as certain conditions are observed.

Probation officers (or pretrial services officers)  – Screen applicants for pretrial release and monitor convicted offenders released under court supervision.

Proofofclaim – A written statement describing the reason a debtor owes a creditor money, which typically sets forth the amount of money owed.

Proper – A slang expression sometimes used to refer to a pro se litigant. It is a corruption of the Latin phrase "in propria persona."

Pro se – A Latin term meaning "on one's own behalf"; in courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers. Serving as one's own lawyer.

Prosecute – To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government.

Protem – temporary

Public defenders – Represent defendants who can't afford an attorney in criminal matters.


Quash – The action of a court to deny, vacate, or make void a request on legal process, such as a subpoena.

Quo warranto – Latin for "by what warrant (or authority)?" is a prerogative writ requiring the person to whom it is directed to show what authority they have for exercising some right or power (or "franchise") they claim to hold. A writ quo warranto is used to challenge a person's right to hold a public or corporate office. 


Reasonable Doubt – The degree of certainty beyond which the government must prove its accusations in order to obtain a criminal conviction.

Rebuttable Presumption – an assumption made by a court that is taken to be true unless someone comes forward to contest it and prove otherwise.

Record – A written account of all the acts and proceedings in a lawsuit.

Remand – When an appellate court sends a case back to a lower court for further proceedings. The lower court is often required to do something differently, but that does not always mean the court’s final decision will change

Reporter – Makes a record of court proceedings, prepares a transcript, and publishes the court's opinions or decisions.

Res Ipsa Loquitur Doctrine, In the common law of negligence, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (Latin for "the thing itself speaks") states that the elements of duty of care and breach can sometimes be inferred from the very nature of an accident or other outcome, even without direct evidence of how any defendant behaved. A doctrine of law that one is presumed to be negligent if he/she/it had exclusive control of whatever caused the injury even though there is no specific evidence of an act of negligence, and without negligence the accident would not have happened.

Respondeat superior – A common-law doctrine that makes an employer liable for the actions of an employee when the actions take place within the scope of employment.

Restitution – The act of making good or giving equivalent for any loss, damage or injury.

Reverse – When an appellate court sets aside the decision of a lower court because of an error. A reversal is often followed by a remand. For example, if the defendant argued on appeal that certain evidence should not have been used at trial, and the appeals court agrees, the case will be remanded in order for the trial court to reconsider the case without that evidence.

Rule of Lenity – A judicial doctrine requiring that those ambiguities in a criminal statute relating to prohibition and penalties be resolved in favor of the defendant if it is not contrary to legislative intent. It embodies a presupposition of law to resolve doubts in the enforcement of a penal code against the imposition of a harsher punishment. The courts while construing an ambiguous criminal statute that sets out multiple or inconsistent punishments should resolve the ambiguity in favor of the more lenient punishment.


Sanction – A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.

Satisfaction – The discharge of an obligation by paying a party what is due to him or what is awarded to him, by the judgment of a court or otherwise.

Sealed – A file that is physically closed from review. Also, a document containing a seal or the word "seal" next to the signer's signature.

Search warrant – Orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence. Search warrants require probable cause in order to be issued.

Sentence – The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime. Federal courts look to the United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines when deciding the proper punishment for a given crime.

Service of process – The service of writs or summonses to the appropriate party.

Settlement – Parties to a lawsuit resolve their difference without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in satisfaction of the other party's claims.

Sequester – To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.

Sidebar – A conference between the judge and lawyers held out of earshot of the jury and spectators.

Sovereign immunity – A legal doctrine by which the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution. The federal government has sovereign immunity and may not be sued unless it has waived its immunity or consented to suit.

Standard of proof – Degree of proof required. In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." The majority of civil lawsuits require proof "by a preponderance of the evidence" (50 percent plus), but in some the standard is higher and requires "clear and convincing" proof.

Statement – A description that a witness gives to the police and that the police write down.

Statute – A law passed by a legislature.

Statute of limitations – A law that sets the time within which parties must take action to enforce their rights. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of civil case or the crime charged.

Suasponte – Latin, meaning "of its own will." Often refers to a court taking an action in a case without being asked to do so by either side.

Subordination – The act or process by which a person's rights or claims are ranked below those of others.

Subpoena – A command to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Subpoena adduces tecum – A command to a witness to produce documents.

Substantive rights are basic human rights possessed by people in an ordered society and includes rights granted by natural law as well as the substantive law. Substantive rights involve a right to the substance of being human (life, liberty, happiness).

Sui  Juris –One who has all the rights to which a freemen is entitled; one who is not under the power of another, as a slave, a minor, and the like.

Summary judgment – A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the facts of the case, and one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Supra (sooh-prah) Latin for "above," in legal briefs and decisions it refers to the citation of a court decision which has been previously mentioned.


Temporary restraining order – Prohibits a person from an action that is likely to cause irreparable harm. This differs from an injunction in that it may be granted immediately, without notice to the opposing party, and without a hearing. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held.

Testify – Answer questions in court.

Testimony – Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.

Tort – A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person as outlined by law. A very common tort is negligent operation of a motor vehicle that results in property damage and personal injury in an automobile accident.

Transcript – A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial or during some other conversation.

Trial – A hearing that takes place when the defendant pleads "not guilty,” and the parties are required to come to court to present evidence.


Unlawful detainer – The unjustified retention of the possession of lands by one whose original entry was lawful and of right, but whose right to possession has terminated and who refuses to vacate the premises. This type of action applies to renters.

Uphold – The decision of an appellate court not to reverse a lower court decision. Also called “affirm.”

U.S. Attorney (or federal prosecutor) – A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute and defend cases for the federal government.

U.S. Marshal (or bailiff) – enforce the rules of behavior in courtrooms.


Venire – A panel of prospective jurors from which a jury is eventually chosen.

Venue – The geographical location in which a case is tried. A change of venue is a change or transfer of a case from one judicial district to another.

Verdict – The decision of a petit jury or a judge.

Victim advocate – work with prosecutors and assist the victims of a crime.

Voir dire – The process by which judges and lawyers select a petit jury from among those eligible to serve by questioning them to determine knowledge of the facts of the case and a willingness to decide the case only on the evidence presented in court. "Voir dire" is a phrase meaning "to speak the truth."


Waive – To abandon, renounce, repudiate or surrender a claim, a privilege, a right, or the opportunity to take advantage of some defect, irregularity or wrong.

Warrant – An arrest warrant is a written order directing the arrest of a party. A search warrant orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence. Search warrants require probable cause in order to be issued.

Witness – A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

Writ – A formal written command, issued from the court, requiring the performance of a specific act.

Writ of certiorari – An order issued by the Supreme Court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case for which it will hear on appeal. The Supreme Court is usually not required to

Writ of Possession – This is the writ of execution employed to enforce a judgment to recover the possession of land in an unlawful detainer action or personal property in a detinue action. It commands the sheriff to enter the land or seize the personal property and give possession of it to the person entitled under the judgment.

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