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Glossary Of Legal Terms



Select the first letter of the word to go to the definition.


Accident Reconstruction
A scientific method where the facts of a car accident are approximated or proven by working backwards from the evidence and damage.

Legal judgment that a criminal defendant has not been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the charges against him.

Case, cause, suit or controversy disputed or contested before a court of justice.

An independent agent or employee of an insurance company whose job is to negotiate and settle claims which are made against the insurance company.

Adversary system
Basic U.S. trial system in which each of the opposing parties has an opportunity to state his or her viewpoint before the court. Plaintiff argues for defendant's guilt (criminal) or liability (civil). Defense argues for defendant's innocence (criminal) or against liability (civil).

A written statement of facts confirmed by the oath of the party making it, before a notary or other officer having authority to administer oaths.

In the practice of the appellate courts, the decree or order is declared valid and will stand as rendered in the lower court.

A claim or statement of what a party intends to prove; the facts as one party claims they are.

To claim or declare that something is so.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
Methods of resolving disputes outside of official court proceedings. These methods include mediation arbitration, and conciliation.

The correction of an error in any process, pleading, or proceeding at law.

American Bar Association (ABA)
A national association of lawyers whose primary purpose is improvement of lawyers and the administration of justice.

The formal written statement by a defendant responding to a complaint setting forth the grounds for his defense.

A review by a higher court of the judgment or decision of a lower court.

The party against whom the appeal is taken.

The referral of a dispute to an impartial third person chosen by the parties to the dispute. The parties agree in advance to abide by the arbitrator's decision following a hearing at which both parties have an opportunity to be heard.

A proceeding in which the criminal defendant is called into court, the indictment is read to him, and he is called on to plead.

Taking physical custody of a person by lawful authority, for the purpose of holding him to answer a criminal charge.

Assumption of Risk
In tort law, a defense to a personal injury suit. The essence of the defense is that the plaintiff assumed the known risk of whatever dangerous condition caused the injury.

A lawyer; one who is licensed to act as a representative for another in a legal matter or proceeding.

A lawyer; one who is licensed to act as a representative for another in a legal matter or proceeding.

An attorney, named in the records of a case, who is responsible for handling the case on behalf of the party he or she represents.

Automobile Insurance
Insurance coverage which protects against damage to a car from numerous hazards (like collision or theft), and against legal liability for personal injuries resulting from the operation of the automobile.

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To obtain the release of a person from legal custody by giving surety for this appearance on the day and time appointed.

Actual physical violence, whether serious or minor, inflicted on a person (A mere threat is called assault, whereas the completed act is called battery).

A certificate or evidence of a debt; a written commitment to pay a certain amount of money if certain conditions are not met.

Bodily Injury
The damage to a personís body as a result of a vehicle collision.

The breaking or violating of a law, right, obligation, or duty either by doing an act or failing to do an act.

A written statement of the case, including a summary of the facts, a statement of the questions of law involved, and the arguments and legal authorities upon which the party relies. It serves as each party's principal submission to the appellate court for its decision.

Burden of Proof
The duty of a litigant to prove or disprove an allegation in court.

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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS)
Pain and loss of feeling (in the thumb and fingers) can result from this nerve disorder which can be caused by an auto accidents.

Cause of Action
A claim in law in fact sufficient to justify a legal right to sue.

An objection to the seating of a prospective juror on the jury panel for a trial.

Challenge for Cause
A challenge to a juror for which some cause or reason is alleged.  (See also Peremptory Challenge)

Charge to the Jury
The judge's instruction to the jury concerning the law which applies to the facts of the case.


Civil Action
Every law suit other than a criminal action; an adversary proceeding for the enforcement or protection of a legal right or the redress or prevention of a wrong.

Civil Rights Case
Involves a claim seeking redress for the violation of a person's constitutional rights. This type of claim is often brought under the federal statute, 42 U.S.C. S 1983. Under this law, a person who acts under color of state law to violate another's constitutional rights may be liable for damages.

Class Action
An action where a large group of persons are interested in a matter. One or more may sue or be sued as representatives of the class without the need to join every member of the group.

Clerk of Court
An officer appointed by a court of justice who has charge of the clerical work; keeps the records and seal, issues process, enters judgments and orders, and gives certified copies of documents from the record.

Closing Arguments
Closing arguments to the jury set out the facts that each side has presented and the reasons why the jury should find in favor of the client. Time limits are sometimes set by the court for closing arguments, and each side must adhere to the specified time. The plaintiff presents closing argument first and may present rebuttal to defendantís closing argument.

Common Law
The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States. It is based on judicial decisions rather than legislative action.

Comparative Negligence
The degree to which a person contributed to his/her own injury, damage or death. Usually measured in terms of percentage.

A witness's ability to observe, recall and recount under other what happened.

Compensatory Damages
The injured person is paid the actual dollar value of any losses paid out as a result of the injury sustained. Compensatory damages often include wage loss and medical costs reimbursement.

The party who complains or sues; one who applies to the Court for legal redress, also called the plaintiff.

Contributory Negligence
The failure to exercise care by a plaintiff which contributed to the plaintiff's injury.

A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

An amount of money awarded to the successful party (and recoverable from the losing party) solely as reimbursement for certain of the expenses in prosecuting or defending a suit.

After a witness has given evidence, the attorney for the opposing party examines or questions him about his testimony to verify or refute it.

A claim which a defendant makes against a plaintiff.

Court of Appeals
An intermediate federal court, inferior to the U.S. Supreme Court but higher than the U.S. District Court.  Its function is to review the final decisions of the district courts, if challenged. There is a Court of Appeals for the circuit in each of the judicial circuits.

A claim by one party against a co-party (a defendant claiming against another defendant, or a plaintiff against another plaintiff) arising out of the original complaint.

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A monetary compensation which may be recovered in the courts by a person who has suffered a loss or injury through the unlawful act or negligence of another.

The part of a loss which the policyholder has to pay under the terms of an insurance policy.

The making of false, derogatory statements about a person's character, morals, abilities, business practices or financial status (includes libel, which is written, and slander, which is spoken).

The person defending or denying; the party against whom relief or recovery is sought in a civil action or suit; the party who is accused in a criminal suit.

A letter from a personal injury claimant's attorney which is sent to the other party's insurance adjuster in an effort to get the insurance company to settle the claim before the claimant's attorney files a lawsuit. The Demand letter will ask for a certain sum of money to compensate the claimant for damages which may include pain and suffering, medical bills, wage loss and other types of damages.

An oral statement made by a person before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. The attorney for the opposing party is notified to attend the deposition where he may cross-examine the deposed party. The deposition may sometimes be used later in the trial, or it may be taken only to obtain discovery.

Direct Evidence
Evidence that tends directly to prove or disprove a disputed fact, as distinguished from circumstantial evidence from which an inference can be drawn.

The disclosure by one party of facts, titles, or documents, to the opposing party who needs this information to properly prosecute or defend the case.

Dismissal Without Prejudice
A dismissal which permits the plaintiff to sue again on the same cause of action or the state to proceed again. Dismissal with prejudice bars the right to subsequently bring an action on the same cause.

District Courts
Courts of the U.S., each having territorial jurisdiction over a judicial district which may include a whole state or only part of it. The district courts are the trial courts of the Federal Judiciary.

Diversity of Citizenship
A phrase used with reference to federal jurisdiction, denoting a case in which the district courts have jurisdiction because all the persons on one side of the case are citizens of states different from all the persons on the other side. The matter in controversy must also exceed a value of $10,000.

A book in which brief entries of all court proceedings are recorded.

Generally refers to writings, pictures, maps, etc.  Denotes official papers such as deeds, agreements, title papers, receipts and other written instruments used to prove a fact.

Under tort law, a duty is an obligation to conform to a certain standard of care.

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Entry of Judgment
Recording the judgment; putting into the docket book a statement of the final judgment and entering copies thereof in the record of the case and the judgment book.

Any kind of matter, presented at trial through witnesses, records, or documents for the purpose of persuading the court or jury of the correctness of the contentions of the parties.

An interrogation or search. The examination of a witness consists of a series of questions asked by a party to the action or his attorney, in order to bring before the court or jury the knowledge which the witness has of the facts or matters in dispute, or probing and sifting the evidence as previously given.

Execution of Judgment
A writ (order) to the marshal or sheriff requiring him to carry out the judgment of the Court.

A paper, document or other article presented and offered into evidence in court during a trial or hearing to prove the facts of a case.

Ex Parte
By or for a single party; done for, in behalf of or on the application of one party only as distinguished from an adversary (contested).

Expert Testimony
Testimony given in relation to some scientific, technical or professional matter by experts, i.e., person qualified to speak authoritatively by reason of their special training, skill or familiarity with the subject.

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False Arrest
Any unlawful physical restraint of another's personal liberty, whether or not carried out by a peace officer.

Federal Question
Refers to the jurisdiction given to the federal courts in cases involving the interpretation and application of Acts of Congress, the U.S. Constitution, and treaties.

To put into files or records of the court; to file a paper is to place it in the official custody of the clerk. The clerk is to endorse upon the paper the date it is received and retain it in the record of the case subject to public inspection.

In a trial, a foundation must be laid to establish the basis for the admissibility of certain types of evidence. For example, an expert witnesses' qualifications must be shown before expert testimony will be admissible.

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Habeas Corpus
A writ that is usually used to bring a prisoner before the Court to determine the legality of his imprisonment. It may also be used to bring a person in custody before the Court to give testimony, or to be prosecuted.

A relatively formal proceeding similar to a trial, with one or more legal issues to be agreed upon or determined.

Information which is not known first hand by the person providing it. A type of testimony given by a witness who relates not what he/she knows personally, but what others have told the witness, or what the witness has heard said by others; may be admissible or inadmissible in court depending upon rules of evidence.

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To impeach a witness is to introduce evidence intended to contradict testimony or to question his credibility.

Legal protection from liability. There are many categories of immunity in civil and criminal law. For example, sovereign immunity protects government agencies from civil liability and judicial immunity protects judges acting in their official capacities.

In Forma Pauperis
In the manner of a pauper. The permission given to a poor person to sue without payment of court fees.

In Rem
An action in rem is one taken directly against property and has for its object the disposition of property, without reference to who owns the property.

The term pertains to liability for loss shifted from one person held legally responsible to another.

The formal charging of the defendant with a particular crime by a grand jury.

The formal accusation charging the defendant with a particular crime but brought by the U.S. Attorney, rather than by the grand jury.

A temporary or permanent order of the Court prohibiting the performance of some specific act in order to prevent irreparable damage or injury.

Any legal harm, wrong or damage done to a person's body, property, rights or reputation, and that the law recognizes as deserving of redress.

A direction given by the judge to the jury concerning the law to be applied in the case.

Written questions asked by one party and served on an opposing party who must answer them in writing under oath as a discovery device.

A proceeding by which a third party is permitted to enter a lawsuit pending between other parties. He may join the plaintiff in seeking what is asked in the complaint; or with the defendant in resisting the claims of the plaintiff; or may demand some relief adverse to both of them.

(1) The disputed point or question in which the parties to a case have narrowed their disagreement; a single material point which is affirmed by one side and denied by the other.  When the plaintiff and the defendant have arrived at some point which one affirms and the other denies, they are said to be "at issue."  When the defendant has filed an answer denying all or part of the allegations of the complaint, the "issue has been joined" and the case is ready to be set for trial.

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The official and authentic decision of a Court adjudicating with finality the respective rights and claims of the parties to a suit.

The power or legal authority of the Court to hear and decide a case.

A certain number of persons selected according to law and sworn to inquire into matters of fact and declare the truth about matters laid before them.

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Leading Question
One which virtually instructs a witness how to answer or puts into his mouth words to be echoed back; one which suggest to the witness the answer desired. Ordinarily prohibited on direct examination, although allowed on cross-examination.

A legal responsibility, obligation, or debt.

Harmful remarks, made in writing, that might injure a personís reputation (could also be in a picture sign, etc.). Slander refers to the same type remarks that are made verbally.

A party to a lawsuit.

A case, controversy, or lawsuit.

Local Rules
A particular set of rules for each court governing matters not determined by the Federal Rules of Procedure.

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Malicious Prosecution
An action instituted with intention of injuring defendant and without probable cause and which terminates in favor of the person prosecuted.

A lawsuit brought against a professional person, such as a doctor, lawyer or engineer, for injury or loss caused by the defendant's negligence in providing professional services.

Literally, "We command." It is a command of a higher court to a lower court or a public officer to perform a lawful duty.

Medical Malpractice
A case involving a doctorís alleged failure to provide care at an acceptable level.

A record of what takes place in court.

An invalid trial the result of which cannot stand because of some fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again from the selection of the jury.

A proceeding which seeks a judgment or ruling on a dispute which does not actually exist. For example, when one party brings a motion to compel the other to answer interrogatories and the other has already answered, the motion is moot.

Motion in Limine
This motion is made prior to the jury selection and it requests that the judge not allow certain facts to be admitted into evidence--such as insurance policies, subsequent marriages, criminal records, and other matters which are either not relevant to the particular case involved or which might influence the jury unfairly.

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Failure to exercise the care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in the same circumstances.

Nolo Contendere
No contest - has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

Information or a warning usually given in writing, informing a person of some fact which it is his legal right to know.

Notice of Appeal
Notice to the Court and to the other parties to the suit that a party intends to exercise his right of appeal. Filing the notice of appeal in the district court is the first step in making the appeal.

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During the examination of a witness, one side may ďobjectĒ to the questioning or testimony of a witness or presentation of evidence if the attorney feels the testimony or evidence about to be given should be excluded. If the objection is sustained by the judge, that particular testimony or evidence is excluded. If the objection is overruled by the judge, the testimony or evidence may be given.

The intentional or unintentional failure to act which may impose liability depending upon the existence of a duty to act under the circumstances.

A formal judicial statement of the legal reasoning upon which the judgment is based.

Opinion Evidence
Witnesses are normally required to confine their testimony to statements of fact and are not allowed to give their opinions in court. However, if a witness is qualified as an expert in a particular field, he or she may be allowed to state an opinion as an expert based on certain facts.

Order to Show Cause
Court order requiring to appear and show cause why the court should not take a particular course of action. If the party fails to appear or to give sufficient reasons why the court should take no action, the court will take the action.

A written law enacted by the legislative body of a county, city or town.

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The persons or entities who prosecute or defend a lawsuit.

Peremptory Challenge
A challenge to a juror without alleging any cause or reason; a limited number of peremptory challenges is allowed each side in any case.

Plaintiff (or Complainant)
The one who brings the suit, asking for the enforcement of a right or the recovery of relief from a wrong.

In a criminal proceeding it is the defendant's declaration in open court, that he is guilty or not guilty - the defendant's answer to the charges made against him in the indictment or information.

The formal written statements presented by the parties in a civil case - forming the basis for the lawsuit and defining the issues.

A court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case, unless a party can show that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way.

Preliminary Examination (or Preliminary hearing)
A hearing before a magistrate or judge to determine if there is probable cause to warrant holding a person accused of a crime. It is a procedure to prevent a possible abuse of prosecutorial power.

Preponderance of Evidence
Evidence which is (even minimally) of greater weight or more convincing than the evidence which if offered in opposition to it. This is the standard by which a plaintiff must prove his/her case in a civil suit.

Pre-trial Conference
This is an informal conference between the attorneys for both sides to clarify the issues and to attempt to work out a settlement, with the judge or magistrate as a moderator.

The process of proving the validity of a will.

A sentencing alternative by the Court by which convicted defendants are released on suspended sentences, generally under the supervision of a probation officer as long as certain conditions are observed. The maximum period of probation which may be imposed upon the charges in a single indictment is five years.

The rules for the conduct of a lawsuit.

The judicial business before the Court or judicial officer; any step or act taken in a lawsuit from the beginning to the executing of the judgment.

The summons or any other writ which may be used during the progress of the case.

Proximate Cause
In a civil tort action such as a medical malpractice suit, the plaintiff must show that an act or omission of the defendant was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury.

Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are awarded in addition to actual damages when the intent is to punish the guilty party for an action. They are generally awarded when it has been determined that the defendant acted with recklessness, malice, or deceit.

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To annul or make void.

Quid Pro Quo
What for what; something for something; giving one valuable thing for another.

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Rebuttal Evidence
Evidence given to explain, repel, contradict, or disprove facts given in evidence by the adverse party.

A written memorial of all the acts and proceedings in an action or suit.

Redirect Examination
Follows cross-examination, and is conducted by the party who first examined the witness.

Evidence that helps to prove a point or issue in a case.

To send back. The act of the appellate court in sending a case back to the district court for further action.

Res Ipsa Loquitur
Literally, "a thing that speaks for itself. "In tort law, the doctrine which holds a defendant guilty of negligence without an actual showing that he or she was negligent.

Res Judicata
A rule of civil law that once a matter has been litigated and final judgment has been rendered by the trial court, the matter cannot be relitigated by the parties in the same court, or any other trial court.

Respondeat Superior
"Let the master answer." The doctrine which holds that employers are responsible for the acts and omissions of their employees and agent, when done within the scope of the employees' duties.

The act of an appellate court annulling a judgment of a lower court because of an error.


To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.

The delivery of a writ, notice, or injunction, by an authorized person to officially notify another party of a proceeding in which he is concerned.

Parties to a lawsuit resolve their difference without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in satisfaction of the other party's claims.

To have standing to sue, plaintiffs must demonstrate the existence of a controversy in which they personally have suffered or are about to suffer an injury or infringement of a legally protected right.

A law passed by a legislature.

An agreement by attorneys on opposite sides of a case as to any matter pertaining to the proceedings or trial. It is not binding unless agreed to by both parties, and most stipulations must be in writing.

A command to a witness to appear and give testimony.

A writ directing the marshal to notify the person named that an action has been commenced against him in the court, and that he is required to appear and answer the complaint.

To put a stop to a thing actually existing; a motion to suppress evidence or a confession which does not deny the existence of the evidence or confession, but asks the Court not to allow the use of such evidence in the case.

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One who has died leaving a will or one who has made a will.

The person who makes a will (female - Testatrix).

Oral evidence given by a witness under oath.

A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person, as outlined by law. A very common tort is negligent operation of a motor vehicle that results in property damage and personal injury in an automobile accident.

The typewritten transcription of the shorthand notes of the proceedings in court.

An unlawful interference with one's person, property, or rights.

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The decision of an appellate court not to reverse a lower court decision.

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The geographical location in which a case is tried.

The formal decision or finding made by the jury upon the matters or questions submitted to them at the trial.

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A written order directing the arrest of a party. A search warrant orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence.

A "willful" act is one done intentionally, as distinguished from an act done carelessly or inadvertently.

A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

A formal written command, issued from the Court, requiring the performance of a specific act.

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The division of a city by legislative regulation into districts, and the design of regulations having to do with structural and architectural design and use of buildings.

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