Legal Terms Glossary

Involvement in legal proceedings will typically include a number of legal terms. Although these terms may be confusing, it’s imperative that you understand them so you know what is happening. Whether you are involved in a criminal or civil case as a plaintiff or defendant, educate yourself about common legal terminology. An attorney can also assist you with understanding terms you may not know.

Acknowledgment: A court clerk or attorney must sign a filed document to certify that the person filing the document affirms that the contents are true and that the signing is done voluntarily.

Acquittal: When a jury returns a not-guilty verdict or a judge dismisses a case based on insufficient evidence, an acquittal has occurred.

Adjudication: A judge’s sentence or decision is an adjudication.

Admissible: Admissible evidence is evidence that a judge or jury can consider in a proceeding.

Affidavit: An affidavit is a written statement signed and made under oath.

Allegation: Making an allegation involves stating something that is true during a pleading.

Bail: A person taken into custody may have the option of posting bail, which means that someone has provided an assurance that the person will return for a future appearance. Bail may be in the form of money or property.

Brief: Defense and prosecuting attorneys must submit written briefs to the court to support their arguments in a case. A brief will outline points of law and arguments a lawyer plans to use to prove the case.

Certify: Someone certifies a fact when they testify to the fact in writing.

Charge: A charge involves a formal accusation of a crime.

Civil Action: Cases that do not involve criminal charges are classified as civil actions. Civil actions include divorces and some small-claims cases.

Complaint: A plaintiff must submit a complaint to the court stating the actions allegedly committed by the defendant that led to the case.

Continuance: A judge may issue a continuance to postpone a trial until a later date.

Damages: In a civil action, a court may award damages, or a monetary payment, to the plaintiff, paid by the defendant to compensate the plaintiff for loss.

Default: If a defendant fails to appear in court or does not answer a plaintiff’s claims, the defendant defaults and automatically loses.

Dismissal: If a judge decides to end a case, the judge dismisses it.

Emancipation: When a court frees a minor from parental authority, the minor is emancipated. Emancipation also releases parents from legal responsibility for the minor.

Evidence: Parties to a criminal or civil case will submit evidence or information to the judge or jury to support their positions.

Felony: A felony is the highest type of criminal offense, typically involving incarceration, fines, or even the death penalty with conviction, depending on the crime.

Foreclosure: If a court orders foreclosure, this decision extinguishes or ends a right. For example, a person who defaults on a mortgage may lose the right to a property with foreclosure.

Grievance: A grievance involves a complaint filed against a judge or attorney for an ethics violation.

Hearsay: Hearsay evidence is evidence that has been repeated from others, not involving personal knowledge.

Indigent: An indigent person does not have the financial ability to pay court fees or for self-support.

Injunction: If a court issues an order to stop or start a specific action, the court has issued an injunction.

Judgment: A judge will issue a judgment as a final decision in a case.

Juror: A juror is a person who is a member of a jury.

Juvenile Court: Minors who enter the court system will appear in a juvenile court, which is a special division of the court system designed to manage juvenile cases. Juvenile courts have special confidentiality rules, providing juveniles with privacy.

Lien: A lien is a hold placed on property as security for an amount owed.

Litigant: The litigants to a case are the parties involved.

Marshal: A marshal has the responsibility for the security of a courtroom, including overseeing metal detectors and the people entering and exiting the room.

Misdemeanor: A person charged with a misdemeanor crime may incur fines of up to a specific amount and incarceration up to a specified time.

Motion: Parties to a case may file motions, which are written requests in connection with the case.

No Contest: A defendant may enter a no-contest plea in a criminal proceeding, which enables conviction without the admission of guilt.

Notarize: Notarizing a document involves completing it and stating its validity under oath in the presence of a notary public.

Oath: Statements may require an oath to declare the truth and validity of the statements under penalty of perjury.

Order: A court may issue an order, which is a written or verbal directive.

Parole: A prison inmate may receive parole, which involves early release that is conditional on specific requirements or actions.

Party: A party may be a person involved in a lawsuit or a contract.

Perjury: If someone deliberately lies under oath, this person may be guilty of perjury.

Plaintiff: The plaintiff is the person who originates a civil lawsuit. The prosecuting attorney serves as the plaintiff in a criminal case.

Plea: A defendant enters a plea to a criminal charge, indicating whether the person claims guilt or innocence.

Pretrial Conference: The pretrial conference occurs prior to a trial, involving a meeting between the attorneys and the judge to discuss issues that they can resolve before the trial.

Probation: After conviction for a crime, a person may receive probation instead of incarceration. With probation, the person must follow specific requirements as a condition of continued freedom. If the person violates the conditions, the court can incarcerate the person.

Prosecute: Charging someone with a crime involves the prosecution of the accused person.

Respondent: The respondent is the person against whom a court files a motion.

Restitution: The money due after conviction on a criminal charge or after a civil case ends to pay for damages is the restitution.

Sentence: A defendant may receive a sentence at the end of a criminal proceeding, which imposes punishment.

Statute: Legislatures pass statutes or laws to govern actions.

Stay: A court may issue a stay to suspend a judicial proceeding.

Subpoena: A subpoena is a written order to appear for a court proceeding. Failure to comply can result in penalties.

Testimony: A witness may make statements under oath during a court proceeding, known as testimony.

Trial: If a defendant pleads not guilty to a criminal charge, the case goes to trial. The trial will involve presentation of evidence to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Venue: Courts have specific areas of jurisdiction, known as the venue.

Violation: A lower-level offense that involves a fine would be a violation.

Witness: A witness is a person who testifies in a court proceeding about personal knowledge, offering testimony under oath.

Writ: A court may make a written order, or a writ, that requires a person to do or not do a specific action.

Youth: A youth is a minor between the ages of 16 and 18.