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Do You Speak “Legalese”?


If you are involved in ANY type of legal or court dispute, you may notice that there are quite a few words and phrases that are not used in everyday conversation or, as is often the case, they are used in a different way in a legal proceeding.  Some people refer to these words and phrases as “legalese,” or “legal jargon.”  If you have a pending legal matter, your attorney may throw some of these words out to you during conversation, or you may overhear attorneys talking and using some of these phrases.  If you are involved in a legal matter, it can be helpful to understand some of these more common legal terms.

Action: Also called a case or a lawsuit. A civil court proceeding where one party sues another for wrongdoing that has already occurred, to protect a right, or to prevent a wrong from occurring.

Affidavit: A written statement made under oath.  An Affidavit is often, though not always, signed in front of and witnessed by a Notary Public.

Allegation: The assertion, declaration or statement of a party in a case as to what they believe the facts to be, generally made in a pleading.

Alternative Dispute Resolution: Also called simply “ADR,” a method used to resolve legal disputes other than traditional trial proceedings, particularly as a way to speed up the conclusion of civil cases. For example, mediation or arbitration.

Answer: A court document, or pleading, in a civil case, by which the defendant responds to the plaintiff’s complaint by admitting or denying the allegations made by the plaintiff.

Appeal: Asking a higher court to review the decision of a trial court because the lower court made an error.  For example, in Virginia, if you have an injury claim filed in the Circuit Court for a certain county and you lose, you may file an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Appearance: The official notice filed with the court clerk that tells the court that an attorney is representing you.  Your attorney will file this notice. All court notices and calendars will then be mailed to your attorney at the address listed on the attorney’s Notice of Appearance. When a defendant in a civil case files an appearance, the person is agreeing to the court’s jurisdiction over that case.

Arbitration: A form of “alternative dispute resolution” or ADR.  Submitting a case or a legal dispute to an agreed upon party for a decision, instead of using a judge.  Used in civil cases to settle cases out of court in a more expeditious manner.

Attorney of Record: The attorney whose name appears in the permanent records or files of a case.

Bar: Refers to attorneys as a group.  In order to practice law in a given state, an attorney must be a “member in good standing” of the state Bar – including having paid their annual dues, filed any necessary reports and completed any required continuing education courses.

Brief: A written document prepared by a lawyer and filed with the court in support of their arguments in a case.

Case: A lawsuit or action in a court.  You may, however, have a case against another individual or company even if you do not have to file a lawsuit to get compensation for your harms and losses (or your “damages”).  Your attorney will generally refer to your dispute as a “case” or a “claim” regardless of whether or not a lawsuit has been filed.

Civil Action: A lawsuit other than a criminal case, including personal injury, wrongful death and medical malpractice claims.  Includes family actions (divorces, child support, etc) and small claims cases, although these are both separately designated.

Claim: In civil cases, the statement of relief desired.  When insurance is involved in a dispute, the insurance company will assign a “claim number” to each case.
Common Law: Laws that develop through case decisions by judges over time. Not enacted by legislative bodies.

Complaint: A legal document that is filed with the court to start a lawsuit that tells the court what you want, and is served with a summons on the defendant to begin the case.

Continuance: The adjournment or postponement of a court case to another day.

Contract: A legally enforceable agreement between two or more persons or parties.

Costs: Expenses in prosecuting or defending a case in court. This usually does not include attorney’s fees.  If you have an injury or wrongful death case, costs may include things like copies of medical records and police reports, expenses for private investigators to locate witnesses, court filing fees, photocopies, expert witness fees, etc.

Count: The different parts of a complaint, which could each be a basis or grounds for the lawsuit.

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 Clerk: The person who maintains the official court record of your case. The court clerks’ office receives all court papers and assigns hearing dates.

Court Reporter: The person who records everything said during the court hearing on a stenograph machine and prepares a written record for a fee, if requested.

Cross-Examination: Questioning by a party or the attorney of an adverse party or a witness.

Damages: Money a party requests to receive as compensation for a legal wrong.  Damages can include past and future medical expenses, past and future lost wages or loss of earning potential, compensation for pain and suffering, etc.

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. 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.

Discovery: A formal request by one party in a lawsuit to disclose information or facts known by other parties or witnesses (Interrogatories, Requests for Production of Documents, Requests for Admissions, Depositions and Subpoenas Duces Tecum are all part of the discovery process).

Dismissal: A judge’s decision to end the case.

Docket: A list of cases scheduled to be heard in court on a specific day or week.

Docket Number: A unique number the court clerk assigns to a case. It must be used on all future papers filed in the court case.

Evidence: Testimony, documents or objects presented at a trial to prove a fact.

Finding: The court’s or jury’s decision on issues of fact.

Hearsay: Testimony given by a witness who tells second or third hand information.

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.

Jurisdiction: Power and authority of a court to hear and make a judgment in a case.

Jury Instructions: Directions given by the judge to the jury concerning the law of the case. (Civil | Criminal)

Lien: A charge, hold, or claim upon property of another as security for a debt.

Litigant: A party to a case.

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.

Minor: A person under age 18, the age of legal majority.

Motion: Usually written request to the court in a case. Filed with the clerk’s office.

Non-Suit: A plaintiff’s procedural safety device which allows the plaintiff to start the case over one time.

Order: A written direction of a court or judge to do or refrain from doing certain acts.

Parties: The people or legal entities that are named as plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) on legal papers.

Party: A person or legal entity that is named as a plaintiff or defendant on legal papers.

Perjury: Making false statements under oath.

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: complaint; motion to dismiss; motion for modification.

Pretrial: In a civil case, a conference with a judge or trial referee to discuss discovery and settlement.

Pro Se: A Latin phrase meaning for “yourself”–representing yourself in any kind of case.

Record: The pleadings, the exhibits and the transcript made by the court reporter of all proceedings in a trial.

Service: The legal method for giving a copy of the court papers being filed to other parties in a case.

Statute: A law enacted by a legislative body.

Statute of Limitations: A certain time allowed by law for starting a case. For example, five years for a written contract.

Stipulation: Also called a “stip.” A written agreement by the parties or their attorneys. (Such as a Stipulation of Dismissal when a case is being dismissed.)

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.

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.

Transfer: Assignment of a case to another court location by court order.

Venue: The court location.

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.

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