Legal terminology can be confusing. Words that have common, every day meanings may have very different legal meanings, which can make reading cases and case law mindbending for non-lawyers. This glossary serves to provide definitions for some of the more common legal terms you are likely to hear.
Abrogate: To repeal or cancel an old law using another law or constitutional power.
Accessory: A person that helps someone else commit a crime, either before or after the crime.
Accomplice: A person that helps someone else commit a crime. Can be on purpose or not.
Acquittal: the finding of a judge that the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction or a jury verdict that a criminal defendant is not guilty.
Admissible: evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases.
Adversary proceeding: lawsuit related to a bankruptcy case that begins by filing a complaint with the court.
Affidavit: A written or printed statement made under oath.
Affirmed: when the court of appeals has concluded that the lower court decision is correct and will stand as rendered
Alternative dispute resolution (ADR): the procedure for settling a dispute outside the courtroom, most forms of which are not binding, and involve referral to an arbitrator or mediator.
Amicus curiae: Latin for “friend of the court.” Advice formally offered to the court in a brief filed by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case.
Appeal: a request made after a trial by a party that has lost on one or more issues that a higher court review the decision to determine if it was correct. To make such a request is “to appeal” or “to take an appeal.” One who appeals is called the “appellant;” the other party is the “appellee.”
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 a lower court (trial court) or tribunal. For example, the U.S. circuit courts of appeals review the decisions of the U.S. district courts.
Appellee: the party who opposes an appellant’s appeal, and who seeks to persuade the appeals court to affirm the district court’s decision.
Arraignment: a proceeding in which a criminal defendant is brought into court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.
Automatic stay: injunction that automatically stops lawsuits, foreclosures, garnishments, and most collection activities against the debtor the moment a bankruptcy petition is filed.
Bench trial: trial without a jury, in which the judge serves as the fact-finder.
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.
Cross-Claim / Cross-Complaint: a pleading which asserts a claim arising out of the same subject action as the original complaint against a co-party, i.e., one co-defendant cross claims against another co-defendant for contribution for any damages assessed against him
Cross-Defendant: The defendant in a cross-claim.
Cross-Examination: the questioning of a witness produced by the other side.
Damages: money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).
De facto: Latin for “in fact” or “actually.” Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.
Deposition: 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. See discovery.
Docket: a log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.
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. See also information.
Injunction: a court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.
Judgment: the official decision of a court finally resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit.
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.
Litigation: a case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.
Mandamus: (writ of) is an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering the government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion.
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; 3. The list of attorneys who are both available and qualified to serve as court-appointed counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford their own counsel.
Plaintiff: a person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.
Precedent: a court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally “follow precedent” – meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case.
Pro per: 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: Representing oneself. Serving as one’s own lawyer.
Sanction: a penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.
Settlement:parties to a lawsuit resolve their dispute without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in at least partial satisfaction of the other party’s claims, but usually do not include the admission of fault.
Statute: a law passed by a legislature.
Statute of limitations: the time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begun. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of civil case or the crime charged.
Subpoena: a command, issued under a court’s authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.
Subpoena duces tecum: a command to a witness to appear and produce documents.
Tort: a civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract.
Warrant: Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.
Witness: A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.
Writ: A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.
Writ of certiorari: An order issued by the U.S. Supreme Court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case which it will hear on appeal.