Terms to Know

One of the most intimidating aspects of any legal proceeding can be the jargon and the sheer volume of jargon that permeates the legal profession. The practice of law is thousands of years old and so it has developed a robust library of terms down through the ages. This language can sometimes intimidate or confuse non-legal professionals involved in a legal proceeding. In an effort to knock away some of the mystique, we’ve provided a short list of common legal terms that you might encounter during your case.

  • 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.
  • Affidavit – A written statement made under oath, swearing to the truth of the contests of a document.
  • Arbitration – Submitting a case or dispute to designated parties for a decision, instead of using a judge.
  • 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 File – The court file containing papers submitted in a case.
  • Civil Action – A lawsuit other than a criminal case usually filed in a Judicial District courthouse. Includes family actions (divorces, child support, etc) and small claims cases, although these are both separately designated.
  • Damages – Money a party receives as compensation for a legal wrong.
  • Defendant – In civil cases, the person who is given court papers, also called a respondent. In criminal cases, the person who is arrested and charged with a crime.
  • Deposition – Testimony of a witness taken, under oath, in response to another party’s questions. Testimony given outside the courtroom, usually in a lawyer’s office. A word for word account (transcript) is made of the testimony.
  • Dismissal – A judge’s decision to end the case.
  • 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.
  • Garnishment – A court order to collect money or property. For example, a garnishment may be issued to an employer to pay part of an employee’s wages to someone else to pay a debt or judgment.
  • Grievance – A complaint filed against an attorney or judge, claiming an ethics violation.
  • Injunction – A court order to stop doing or to start doing a specific act.
  • Lien – A charge, hold, or claim upon property of another as security for a debt.
  • Magistrate – A person who is not a judge but who is authorized to hear and decide certain types of cases. For example, family support magistrates hear cases involving child support.
  • Mediation – A dispute resolution process in which an impartial third party assists the parties to voluntarily reach a mutually acceptable settlement.
  • Mitigating Circumstance – Circumstances that may be considered to reduce the guilt of a defendant. Usually based on fairness or mercy.
  • Motion – Usually written request to the court in a case. Filed with the clerk’s office.
  • Plaintiff (Petitioner) – The person who sues or starts a civil case, also called the petitioner or the complainant.
  • Subpoena – A command to appear in court to testify as a witness.
  • Tort – A civil injury or wrong to someone else, or their property.

This is just a short list that can help you understand some of the terms that you may read or hear in the courtroom during your case, but there are certainly more that will likely come up. If you hear something during the process of a trial that confuses you, write it down and ask you lawyer about. You have to right to know what is going on and understanding terms is key to that end.

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