Glossary of Commonly Used
Legal Words and Terms
Action: Also called a case or lawsuit. A civil judicial proceeding where one party sues another for a wrong done, or to protect a right or to prevent a wrong.
Affirmation: Declaring something to be true under the penalty of perjury by a person who will not take an oath for religious or other reasons.
Affidavit: A written statement made under oath.
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Also called ADR. Any method used to resolve disputes other than traditional trial proceedings. For example, mediation. ADR programs speed up the disposition of civil cases.
Appeal: Asking a higher court to review the decision or sentence of a trial court because the lower court made an error.
Arbitration: Submitting a case or dispute to designated parties for a decision, instead of using a judge.
Attachment: A lien on property or assets to hold it to pay or satisfy any final judgment.
Attorney of Record: Attorney whose name appears in the permanent records or files of a case.
Brief: A written document prepared by a lawyer or party on each side of a dispute and filed with the court in support of their arguments.
Case: A lawsuit or action in a court.
Case Conference: A meeting scheduled by the court to review the case.
Case File: The court file containing papers submitted in a case
Claim: A formal statement of the wrong done and the relief requested that is a prior requirement for an action against a public entity in either State or Federal court
Certify: To testify in writing; to make known or establish as a fact.
Claim: In civil cases, the statement of relief desired
Complaint: A legal document that tells the court what you want, and is served with a summons on the defendant to begin the case.
Contempt of Court: A finding that someone disobeyed a court order. Can also mean disrupting court, for example, by being loud or disrespectful in court.
Continuance: The adjournment or postponement of a court case to another day.
Costs: Expenses in prosecuting or defending a case in court. Usually does not include attorney’s fees.
Counter Claim: A claim by the defendant in a civil action that the defendant is entitled to damages or other relief from the plaintiff.
Court Trial: Trial by a judge, rather than by a jury
Cross-Examination: Questioning by a party or the attorney of an adverse party or a witness.
Damages: Money a party receives as compensation for a legal wrong.
Default: To fail to respond or answer to the plaintiff’s claims by filing the required court document; usually an Appearance or an Answer.
Defendant: In civil cases, the person who is given court papers, also called a respondent.
Discovery: A formal request by one party in a lawsuit to disclose information or facts known by other parties or witnesses.
Dismissal: A judge’s decision to end the case.
Dismissal Without Prejudice: 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.
Ex Parte: Done for, or at the request of, one side in a case only, without prior notice to the other side.
Filing: Giving the court clerk legal papers which become part of the case file.
Financial Affidavit: A sworn statement of income, expenses, property (called assets) and debts (called liabilities).
Finding: The court’s or jury’s decision on issues of fact.
Hung Jury: A jury whose members cannot reconcile their differences of opinion and thus cannot reach a verdict.
Interrogatory: Formal, written questions used to get information from another party in a lawsuit.
Judgment: A court decision. Also called a decree or an order.
Judgment File: A permanent court record of the court’s final disposition of the case.
Jury Instructions: Directions given by the judge to the jury concerning the law of the case.
Lien: A charge, hold, or claim upon property of another as security for a debt.
Marshal: The persons responsible for courthouse security including the metal detectors at the entrance of each courthouse and maintaining order in each courtroom. A marshal can also serve (give copies of) legal papers to the other people named in a lawsuit.
Mediation: A dispute resolution process in which an impartial third party assists the parties to voluntarily reach a mutually acceptable settlement.
Motion: Usually written request to the court in a case. Filed with the clerk’s office.
Notarize: To formally complete a document by acknowledgement or oath.
Oath: To swear/affirm to the truth of a statement/document.
Order: A written direction of a court or judge to do or refrain from doing certain acts.
Party: A person or legal entity that is named as a plaintiff or defendant on legal papers.
Peremptory Challenge: The rejection of a prospective juror by the attorneys in a case, without having to give a reason. State law defines the number of peremptory challenges available.
Perjury: Making false statements under oath.
Petition: A formal written request to a court, which starts a special proceeding.
Plaintiff: The person who sues or starts a civil case, also called the petitioner or the complainant.
Pleadings: The court documents filed with the court by the parties in a civil or criminal case. For example: motion to dismiss; motion for modification.
Pretrial Hearing: Conference with attorneys to determine scope of possible trial with view toward resolving issues through agreement.
Respondent: Another word for defendant; the person responding to a lawsuit.
State Referee: A retired judge who presides over cases referred by the court with agreement of counsel for both parties. Has full powers of an active trial judge.
Statute of Limitations: A certain time allowed by law for starting a case. For example, six years in a contract case.
Stay: Temporarily stopping a judicial proceeding.
Stipulation: Also called a “stip.” A written agreement by the parties or their attorneys.
Subpoena: A command to appear in court to testify as a witness.
Subpoena Duces Tecum: A legal paper requiring someone to produce documents or records for a trial.
Summons: A legal paper that is used to start a civil case and get jurisdiction over a party.
Testimony: Statements made by a witness or party under oath.
Tort: A civil injury or wrong to someone else, or their property.
Transcript: The official written record of everything that was said at a court proceeding, a hearing, or a deposition.
Voir Dire: “To speak the truth.” The process of questioning prospective jurors or witnesses about their qualifications.
Witness: A person who testifies to what they saw, heard, observed or did.
Writ: Legal paper filed to start various types of civil lawsuits.
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