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Legal Terms Glossary

By: the American Bar Association

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Acquittal - A release, absolution, or discharge of an obligation or liability. In criminal law the finding of not guilty.

Adjudication - Giving or pronouncing a judgment or decree. Also the judgment given.

Administrative agencies - Agencies created by the legislative branch of government to administer laws pertaining to specific areas such as taxes, transportation, and labor.

Admiralty law - That body of law relating to ships, shipping, marine commerce and navigation, transportation of persons or property by sea, etc.

Advance directive - see living will.

Affidavit - A voluntary, written, or printed declaration of facts, confirmed by oath of the party making it before a person with authority to administer the oath.

Alimony - Also called maintenance or spousal support. In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage.

Alternative dispute resolution - Settling a dispute without a full, formal trial. Methods include mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and settlement, among others.

Amicus curiae - Latin for friend of the court. Refers to a party that is allowed to provide information (usually in the form of a legal brief) to a court even though the party is not directly involved in the case at hand.

Annulment - A legal decree that states that a marriage was never valid. Has the legal effect of wiping out a marriage as though it never existed.

Answer - In a civil case, the defendant's written response to the plaintiff's complaint. It must be filed within a specified period of time, and it either admits to or (more typically) denies the factual or legal basis for liability.

Appeal - A request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to overturn the legal ruling of a lower court.

Appearance - The act of coming into court as a party to a suit either in person or through an attorney.

Appellate court - A court having jurisdiction to hear appeals and review a trial court's procedure.

Arbitration - When disputing parties participate in a process where they agree in advance to accept the decision of a mutually-selected arbitrator or panel of arbitrators which will hear both sides and make a decision. Bar-sponsored arbitration programs may also be a free or affordable way to work through a dispute with a lawyer.

Arbitrator - A private, disinterested person chosen by the parties in arbitration to hear evidence concerning the dispute and to make an award based on the evidence.

Arraignment - The initial appearance before a judge in a criminal case. At an arraignment, the charges against the defendant are read, a lawyer is appointed if the defendant cannot afford one, and the defendant's plea is entered. A plea can be guilty, not guilty, or where permitted nolo contendere. (See preliminary hearing.)

Articles of incorporation - A document that must be filed with a state in order to incorporate. Among the things it typically must include are the name and address of the corporation, its general purpose and the number and type of shares of stock to be issued.

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Bankruptcy - A federal legal proceeding in which a debtor may be released from or discharged from debts, sometimes by paying a portion of each debt.

Bar - A term meaning lawyers or lawyer associations.

Brief - A written argument by counsel arguing a case, which contains a summary of the facts of the case, pertinent laws, and an argument of how the law applies to the fact situation.

Burden of proof - In a court case, the responsibility of proving a point (the burden of proof); which side must establish a point or points.

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Canons of ethics - Standards of ethical conduct for attorneys.

Case law - (Also known as common law.) Law established by previous decisions of appellate courts.

Cause of action - The fact or facts which give a person a right to relief in court.

Certiorari - When a higher court agrees to review the decision of a lower court. If an appellate court grants a writ of certiorari, it agrees to take the appeal.

Civil law or civil case - A case that does not include a crime. Usually a case between private parties or businesses.

Class action - A lawsuit brought by one or more persons on behalf of a larger group.

Client Security/Protection Fund - A special fund to help compensate clients who are defrauded by dishonest lawyers, for example when a lawyer fails to turn over client's money won in a lawsuit, or other money held in trust for the client. This fund cannot help clients in fee disputes, or pay for losses due to lawyer malpractice.

Closing - In a real estate transaction, this is the final exchange in which the deed is delivered to the buyer, the title is transferred, and the agreed-on costs are paid.

Code of Professional Responsibility - The rules of conduct or ethics that govern the legal profession.

Common law - (Also known as case law.) Law established by previous decisions of appellate courts.

Compensatory damages - Money awarded to reimburse actual costs, such as medical bills and lost wages. Also awarded for things that are harder to measure, such as pain and suffering.

Complainant - The party who complains or sues; one who applies to the court for legal redress. (May also be called the plaintiff or petitioner.)

Complaint - 1) The legal document that usually begins a civil lawsuit. It states the facts and identifies the action the court is asked to take. 2) Formal written charge that a person has committed a criminal offense.

Conciliation - A form of alternative dispute resolution in which the parties bring their dispute to a neutral third party, who helps lower tensions, improve communications, and explore possible solutions. Conciliation is similar to mediation, but may be less formal.

Contempt of court - Willful disobedience of a judge's command or of an official court order. An action that interferes with a judge's ability to administer justice or that insults the dignity of the court. Disrespectful comments to the judge or a failure to heed a judge's orders could be considered contempt of court. A person found in contempt of court can face financial sanctions and, in some cases, jail time.

Contingency fee - Also called a contingent fee. A fee arrangement in which the lawyer is paid out of any damages that are awarded. Typically, the lawyer gets between one-fourth and one-third. If no damages are awarded, there is no fee (but the client still may have to pay filing fees, costs for the lawyer's investigation of the case, etc.).

Continuance - Postponement of a legal proceeding to a later date.

Contract - A legally enforceable agreement between two or more competent parties made either orally or in writing in which an offer is made and accepted, and each party benefits. The agreement can be formal, informal, written, oral or just plain understood. Some contracts are required to be in writing in order to be enforced by a court.

Copyright - A person's right to prevent others from copying works that he or she has written, authored or otherwise created.

Corporation - An independent entity created to conduct a business or other activity.

Counsel - A legal adviser; a term used to refer to lawyers in a case.

Counterclaim - A claim made by the defendant in a civil lawsuit against the plaintiff. In essence, a counter lawsuit within a lawsuit.

Court costs - The expenses of prosecuting or defending a lawsuit, other than the attorney fees. An amount of money may be awarded to the successful party (and may be recoverable from the losing party) as reimbursement for court costs.

Court reporter - A person who transcribes by shorthand or stenographically takes down testimony during court proceedings, a deposition, or other trial-related proceeding.

Crime - An act in violation of the penal laws of a state or the United States.

Criminal justice system - The network of courts and tribunals which deal with criminal law and its enforcement.

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Damages - Money awarded by a court to a person injured by another person.

Debtor - A person or entity who owes a debt to another.

Deed - A written legal document that describes a piece of property and outlines its boundaries.

Default - Failure of the defendant to appear and answer the summons and complaint.

Default judgment - A judgment entered against a party who fails to appear in court or respond to the charges.

Defendant - The person defending or denying a suit.

Deposition - Testimony of a witness or a party taken under oath outside the courtroom, the transcript of which becomes a part of the court's file.

Disbarment - Form of discipline of a lawyer resulting in the loss (often permanently) of that lawyer's right to practice law.

Discipline Agency - A state agency responsible for investigating complaints about lawyers. If the lawyer is found to have violated an ethics or court rule, he or she will be reprimanded, fined, and perhaps suspended or disbarred (license to practice law revoked). Please note that lawyer discipline agencies cannot help clients recover fees paid to the lawyer, or make the lawyer pay for a loss the client has suffered because the lawyer made mistakes in handling a case.

Discovery - A process prior to a trial in which each side obtains facts and information about the case from the other side and from other sources.

Dismissal - The termination of a lawsuit by a court's finding that it should not be permitted to proceed.

Dismissal with prejudice - When a case is dismissed for good reason and the plaintiff is barred from bringing an action on the same claim.

Dismissal without prejudice - When a case is dismissed but the plaintiff is allowed to bring a new suit on the same claim.

Domicile - Where a person has his permanent home to which he intends to return.

Double jeopardy - Putting a person on trial more than once for the exact same crime. It is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Due process - The concept that laws and legal proceedings must be fair. The Constitution guarantees that the government cannot take away a person's basic rights to life, liberty or property, without due process of law. Courts have issued numerous rulings about what this means in particular cases.

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Equal Protection Clause - The portion of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits discrimination by state government institutions. The clause grants all people equal protection of the laws, which means that the states must apply the law equally and cannot give preference to one person or class of persons over another.

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

Expert witness - A witness with a specialized knowledge of a subject who is allowed to discuss an event in court even though he or she was not present. For example, an arson expert could testify about the probable cause of a suspicious fire.

Expungement - The process by which the record of criminal conviction is destroyed or sealed.

Extradition - The surrender of an accused criminal by one state to the jurisdiction of another.

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Felony - A serious criminal offense. Usually any offense punishable by death or imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.

Fiduciary - A person or institution who manages money or property for another. For example, an executor of an estate, a trustee, etc.

Fiduciary Duty - An obligation to act in the best interest of another party. For instance, a corporation's board member has a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, a trustee has a fiduciary duty to the trust's beneficiaries.

Filing Fee - The fee required for filing various documents.

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Grand Jury - A group of citizens convened in a criminal case to consider the prosecutor's evidence and determine whether probable cause exists to prosecute a suspect for a felony.

Guardian - A person appointed by will or by law to assume responsibility for incompetent adults or minor children. If a parent dies, this will usually be the other parent. If both die, it probably will be a close relative.

Guardian ad litem - Latin for guardian at law. The person appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of a child or other person not able to look out for themselves during the course of legal proceedings.

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Hearing - A formal proceeding (generally less formal than a trial) with definite issues of law or of fact to be heard. Hearings are used by courts and also by legislative and administrative agencies.

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Indigent - Needy or impoverished. A defendant in a criminal case who can demonstrate his or her indigence to the court may be assigned a court-appointed attorney at public expense.

Initial appearance - When a defendant in a criminal case comes before a judge shortly after an arrest to determine whether or not there is probable cause for the arrest.

Injunction - A court order which forbids or requires a party to the case to do some act.

Interrogatories - A set or series of written questions sent to a party, witness, or other person having information or interest in a case; used in the discovery phase of a case.

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Joint and several liability - A legal concept that says that each of the parties who are responsible for an injury are liable for the total amount of damages awarded in a lawsuit if the other parties responsible cannot pay.

Judgment - Decision of a court.

Jurisdiction - The power or authority of a court to hear and try a case; the geographic area in which a court has power or the types of cases it has power to hear.

Jury - A certain number of men and women selected according to law and sworn to determine the facts in a case after hearing the evidence.

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Legal aid - Legal services that may be available to persons or organizations unable to afford such services in civil matters. There is no right to legal aid in most types of civil matters.

Living will - Also known as a medical directive or advance directive. A written document that states a person's wishes regarding life-support or other medical treatment in certain circumstances, usually when death is imminent.

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Magistrate - (See U.S. Magistrate Judge.) Judicial officer exercising some of the functions of a judge. It also refers in a general way to a judge.

Maintenance - In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage. Also called alimony.

Mediation - A private, informal way to resolve a dispute. A mediator is a neutral third person who tries to aid disputing parties in reaching a mutually agreeable solution to their differences. Bar sponsored client-lawyer mediation programs can be a good first step if efforts to work the problem out with the lawyer have not succeeded.

Misdemeanor - A criminal offense lesser than a felony and generally punishable by fine or by imprisonment other than in a penitentiary or for less than one year.

Mistrial - A fundamental error in a trial. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again with the selection of a new jury.

Moot - A moot case or a moot point is one not subject to a judicial determination because it involves an abstract question or a pretended controversy that has not yet actually arisen or has already passed. Mootness usually refers to a court's refusal to consider a case because the issue involved has been resolved prior to the court's decision, leaving nothing that would be affected by the court's decision.

Motion - A request made to a court or judge which seeks a ruling or order in favor of the applicant.

Motion to dismiss - In a civil case, a request to a judge by the defendant, asserting that even if all the allegations are true, the plaintiff is not entitled to any legal relief and thus the case should be dismissed.

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Negligence - Failure to use care which a reasonable and prudent person would use under similar circumstances.

No-fault divorce - A divorce in which it doesn't matter who did what to whom that caused the marriage to break down; all that matters is that there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.

Notary Public - A person who has been authorized by a state to administer oaths or certify documents.

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Oath - A solemn pledge made under a sense of responsibility.

Opinion - A judge's written explanation of a decision of the court or of a majority of judges. A dissenting opinion disagrees with the majority opinion because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law on which the decision is based. A concurring opinion agrees with the decision of the court but offers further comment. (A per curiam opinion is an unsigned opinion of the court.)

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Paralegal - A person, usually with special training but who has not earned a law degree, who works under the supervision of a lawyer. Also called a legal assistant.

Petitioner - In some states or types of cases, the person filing a lawsuit or action in a court. Also, the person who appeals the judgment of a lower court.

Plaintiff - A person who brings a lawsuit or action; the party who complains or sues in a civil action.

Plea - The defendant's statement that he or she is guilty or not guilty. The defendant's answer to the charges made in the indictment or information. A plea can be guilty, not guilty, or where permitted nolo contendere.

Pleadings - The written statements of fact and law filed by the parties to a lawsuit.

Preliminary hearing - Also, called a preliminary examination. Legal proceeding used in some states in which a prosecutor presents evidence to a judge in an attempt to show that there is probable cause that a person committed a crime. If the judge is convinced probable cause exists to charge the person, then the prosecution proceeds to the next phase. If not, the charges are dropped.

Pro Bono - Work done by a lawyer without compensation, for the public good: a lawyer's pro bono work.

Pro Se - (pronounced pro say) Latin phrase that means for himself. A person who represents himself in court alone without the help of a lawyer is said to appear pro se.

Probate - Court proceeding by which a will is proved valid or invalid. Term used to mean all proceedings pertaining to the administration of estates such as the process by which assets are gathered; applied to pay debts, taxes, and expenses of administration; and distributed to those designated as beneficiaries in the will.

Probate court - The court with authority to supervise estate administration.

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.

Public defender - Government lawyer who provides free legal defense services to a poor person accused of a crime.

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- R -

Reasonable doubt - Generally in a criminal case, an accused person is entitled to acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, his or her guilt has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Reply - The response by a party to charges raised in a pleading by the other party.

Respondent - The person against whom an appeal is taken.

Retainer - A term sometimes used to describe the fee which the client pays when he or she retains the attorney to act for them.

Rules of evidence - Standards governing whether evidence in a civil or criminal case is admissible.

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Self help - A term sometimes used to describe when a person handles a legal matter on their own, without using a lawyer.

Standard of proof - In a court case, indicates the degree to which the point must be proven. In a civil case, the plaintiff must usually establish his or her case by a "preponderance of evidence" or "clear and convincing evidence."

Standing - The legal right to bring a lawsuit. Only a person with something at stake has standing to bring a lawsuit.

Statute of limitations - A statute which limits the right of a plaintiff to file an action unless it is done within a specified time period after the occurrence which gives rise to the right to sue.

Stipulation - An agreement between the parties involved in a suit, agreeing that a certain fact or law will be assumed to be true or relevant.

Subpoena - An order compelling a person to appear to testify or produce documents.

Summary judgment - When a court gives its judgment that there is no dispute as to the facts of the case and one party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

Summons - A legal document used to begin a civil case or to tell a person they must appear in court or respond to a lawsuit.

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Temporary restraining order - An emergency but temporary order by a court used when immediate or irreparable damages or loss might result.

Testimony - The evidence given by a witness under oath. It does not include evidence from documents and other physical evidence.

Tort - When a person or entity caused a civil wrong or injury.

Trust - A legal device used to manage real or personal property, established by one person for the benefit of another.

Trustee - The person or institution that manages the property put in trust.

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- V -

Venue - Authority of a court to hear a matter based on geographical location.

Verdict - A conclusion, as to fact or law, that forms the basis for the court's judgment.

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Will - A legal declaration that disposes of a person's property when that person dies.

Witness - A person who testifies in court and swears to give truthful evidence about what he has seen, heard, or otherwise observed.

Words and Phrases Legally Defined - A set of books in dictionary form which lists judicial determinations of a word or phrase.

Worker's compensation - 1) A state agency which handles claims of workers injured on their jobs. 2) A benefit paid to an employee who suffers a work-related injury or illness.

Writ - A judicial order directing a person to do something.

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. (See certiorari in Foreign Words Glossary.)

Writ of execution - An order of the court evidencing debt of one party to another and commanding the court officer to take property in satisfaction of the debt.

Writ of garnishment - An order of the court whereby property, money, or credits in the possession of another person may be seized and applied to pay a debtor's debt. It is used as an incident to or auxiliary of a judgment rendered in a principal action.

Wrongful discharge - When an employee is fired for reasons that are not legitimate, typically either because they are unlawful or because they violate the terms of an employment contract.

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