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Plain Language Legal Glossary

This legal glossary has been written by Attorney Larchuk as a tool to better understand the litigation process. This is an original work and all rights are reserved. Copyright 2011. Steven B. Larchuk.

Jump to letter: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Admission - Any written or verbal statement by one side or the other regarding the issues in dispute and which their opponents may repeat to the jury as proof.

Allegations - The written or spoken history of the events in controversy from each side’s point of view. Typically the person who starts the law suit states their allegations in their complaint through a series of numbered paragraphs and the person named as defendant(s) then respond to each of those paragraphs through their answer where they may also raise some new allegations of their own.

Answer - The written response filed by the defendant to the allegations of a complaint.

Appeal - The right of a person unhappy with the verdict to ask a higher court to determine if the if the trial judge made important errors justifying a new trial or other corrective action.

Appeal Bond or Supercedeas - Once a judgment has been entered in favor of the plaintiff, and even if an appeal has been filed, the winner can demand payment of the judgment or start the process to collect their money unless the side taking the appeal deposits with the court cash equal to some 100% or more of the judgment (the amount varies from state to state), or files a bond from an insurance company which will promise to pay on behalf of the defendant in the event the appeal is unsuccessful. This assures that the funds will be available to pay the judgment if a new trial in not ordered.

Appellate Court - Special groups of judges whose sole function is to consider appeals and thus to decide whether cases which have been tried or dismissed must be retried or reinstated due to some error by the trial judge which deprived the loser of a fair trial.

Arbitration - A type of trial but without a courtroom, judge or jury where evidence is presented to one or more arbitrators who decide the case. Typically there is no right to appeal but the cases can be resolved more quickly.

Argument - A verbal presentation to the judge or on appeal of each side’s point of view regarding legal issues to be decided by the judge or the appellate court.

Attorney - An individual who has qualified through education and the passing of an examination to be licensed in a particular state to provide legal counsel and representation to the public for payment.

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Bar - In a courtroom, a physical, traditionally wood, barrier between the judge and the lawyers, usually with a narrow table surface at the top where lawyers can place their papers while they address the judge or question witnesses.

Bench - An elevated desk and chair where the judge sits during the trial.

Brief - A written document (rarely actually “brief”) filed by one side or the other which summarizes their legal arguments regarding one or more points of law upon which the judge must rule either before or during trial, or after when the loser files an appeal.

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Chambers - The office of the judge, usually connecting to their assigned courtroom.

Closing Statement - Remarks made to the jury by each side once all of the evidence has been presented but before the judge presents the jury instructions and the jury begins its deliberations.

Common Law - As opposed to statutes, the rules which have evolved over time through the centuries as judges have considered thousands of cases, each different, yet often similar enough that a consistent pattern of rulings has established the rules by which the courts can decide a controversy even where there is no statute which specifically addresses the situation.

Complaint - The written document filed with a court which starts the actual law suit.

Confidentiality Clause - Often included as part of a settlement release where the person receiving money promises they will not disclose the terms of the settlement to others.

Contempt of Court - Conduct by any person which a judge believes to be disrespectful of the dignity or authority of the court or where an individual required to do something, or not do something, by previous order of court has violated that order. Common examples would be failure to appear in response to a proper subpoena, ignoring an injunction, failure to pay child support or violation of a custody sharing arrangement, refusal to surrender documents when ordered to do so by the court, and, rarely, outbursts during the trial or during hearings. Penalties depend upon the nature of the offense, but can include fines, imprisonment, or a default.

Contingent Fee - A share of the verdict or settlement, if any, to be paid to the plaintiff’s lawyer upon the successful presentation of a claim and collection of the money. If no money is collected, then there is no fee.

Continuance - A delay in the trial ordered by the judge.

Contract - Promises exchanged which can be enforced by a court. These can be verbal, written, or implied by a pattern of conduct between the parties to the agreement.

Contribution - The obligation of one that is found financially responsible to pay their fair share with the other joint tortfeasors also found responsible.

Contributory (or Comparative) Negligence - A defense to a personal injury or property damage case presented by a defendant on the grounds that the injured person should not be allowed to collect all or any compensation because their injury or loss was totally or partially their fault.

Court - An all purpose shorthand way of referring to the judge, or to the particular group of judges sitting in a particular town or deciding a particular kind of case, such as appeals.

Court Clerk - The individual or office where legal papers are typically filed.

Court Costs - Filing fees, witness fees, and assorted other expenses incurred during the case and trial (but not attorney fees) which the winner is entitled to receive from the loser at the end of the trial.

Court Reporter (Stenographer) - The individual who creates a record of what is being said during a trial or deposition through the use of a stenographic machine, tape recorder, or other means.

Courtroom - Where the trial takes place.

Cross-Examination - Questions asked by the side other that the one who called a particular witness.

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Damages - Money awarded to the injured person if they have proved their case and won a verdict.

De Novo Appeal - A request by the loser before a very low level court requesting that a more senior court consider the case fresh without regard to anything that happened before the lower court. Usually appeals from a small claims court will be de novo, although every state’s rules are different.

Default - Where one side fails to take action required to protect its position in a case and thus is declared the loser without ever having the opportunity to present their evidence at trial. The most common example is where a defendant fails to file an answer on time. Defaults may (but not must) be set aside by the court if the person against whom the default has been entered moves very quickly to petition the judge to vacate the default in the interests of justice and because the petitioner has a good excuse for not doing what they were supposed to and also have worthwhile evidence to present in their favor.

Defendant - The person or persons being sued for money by someone claiming to have been injured.

Deliberations - The discussions among the jurors leading to their agreeing upon a verdict.

Deposition - An opportunity for each side to question a party in the law suit under oath.

Direct Examination - Questions asked by the side calling a particular witness.

Directed Verdict - A ruling by the judge where by they declare one side or the other to have won the case without the need for the jury to deliberate.

Disbarred - Revocation of a lawyer’s license to practice law due to some serious misconduct.

Discovery - The exchange of information between each side after the Complaint is filed but before trial. This process includes depositions, interrogatories, request for production of documents and requests for admissions.

Documentary Evidence - Papers presented by one side or the other to prove a particular fact.

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Escrow Account - A bank account maintained by a lawyer for the deposit of funds belonging to others pending the proper distribution of those funds.

Evidence - Testimony, documents, exhibits, or things presented by each side to prove or disprove certain facts important to the jury’s understanding of the case and supporting or contradicting a claim.

Ex Parte - Meaning without the other party. An event where one side or the other appears before or communicates with a judge without the participation of the other side.

Execution - In the event a defendant fails to pay a judgment, the winner can seek to have the property of the defendant sold at auction by the local sheriff or similar official and the proceeds of that sale are turned over to the verdict winner until the judgment has been paid plus enough extra is raised to pay the expense of the auction itself.

Exhibits - Evidence other than testimony.

Expert witnesses - Individuals with specialized scientific or medical knowledge called by one side or the other to present testimony including their opinion as to certain facts.

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Failure to Mitigate Damages - An defense offered by a defendant that the injured person should not be compensated for injuries or expenses which could have been avoided by resorting to reasonable and available medical treatments or other options.

Federal - The term refers to anything created or operated by the United States government as opposed to an individual state government.

Federal Court - Courts operated by the United States government rather than by any specific state and using rules which are uniform across the country. Federal court judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate and serve for life unless removed for “bad behavior”. In theory such judges are less influenced by the local politics of the area or “District” where they serve and are thus better able to fairly manage cases between citizens of different states and cases involving claims arising under federal statutes.

Fee agreement - The written document setting for the financial terms whereby a lawyer agrees to represent one of the sides.

File - The process of delivering a legal document with a court, usually through a special cleark.

Filing Fee - The money charged by a court in order to file a complaint or other legal paper.

Foundation - Initial questions asked of a witness establishing that they know something relevant to the case.

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General Damages - Amounts awarded to an injured person for harm or losses for which there are no specific bills or expenses. For example, pain and suffering.

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Hearsay - Any verbal or written statement made other than during trial and which is being repeated by a person other than the original speaker or writer. Admissions of your opponent are hearsay but typically are permitted to be heard by the jury under one of dozens of exceptions to the rule against hearsay.

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Impeachment - An attempt on cross-examination to show that the witness should not be believed because of a previous bias in favor of one side or the other, a poor memory, reputation for dishonesty, financial interest in the outcome, and/or an inadequate opportunity to really see or hear what they are testifying to.

Indemnity - The obligation to pay the debts or judgment owed by another either because of duty to so under an insurance policy or based upon a special relationship with the other.

Independent Medical Examination (IME) - A medical examination of the plaintiff by a physician hired by the defense for the purpose of confirming or disproving the existence or extent of personal injuries.

Injunction - An order by a judge directing that something be done, or that something being done be stopped. The penalty for disobeying an injunction can be imprisonment, a fine, or both.

Insurance - An obligation of a state licensed business which accepts money in the form of premiums in exchange for agreeing to pay money in the event the person paying the premiums suffers a loss, an injury, or is found responsible for the loss or injury to another. There are many kinds of insurance and the obligations of the insurance carrier depends upon the specific type of insurance it has sold and the amount of risk it has agreed to take on.

Insurance Adjuster - Usually a person employed by or on behalf of an insurance carrier to investigate an insurance claim.

Insurance Carrier - A state licensed company which sells insurance.

Insurance Claim - A request of an insured, or someone injured by an insured made upon an insurance carrier who had been paid premiums by the insured to provide payments in case the insured suffered a loss or injury, or someone else suffered a loss or injury due to the wrongful conduct of the insured.

Interrogatories - Written questions from one side to the other seeking information relating to the claim or the defense.

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Joint and Several Liability - Principal whereby more than one person can be responsible for an injury and they each are responsible to assure that the injured party is made whole.

Joint Tortfeasor Release - Permitting fewer than all defendants to settle while the case continues against the defendant(s) who has not agreed to settle.

Joint Tortfeasors - Where more than one person or company is held financially responsible for an injury to another.

Judge - Individual who makes the decisions regarding what allegations are sufficient to be submitted to the Jury and what evidence can or cannot be placed before that jury.

Judgment - The actual recording of the verdict in the official records of the court and an announcement to the world that unless an appeal is filed the defendant must pay the winner or risk having their property subject to execution.

Jurors - The individuals making up the jury.

Jury - Citizens selected to hear the evidence and to decide who wins the case.

Jury Box - The enclosed area with chairs designated exclusively for the jury.

Jury Instructions (or Jury Charge) - At the end of the trial information given by the judge to the jury regarding the applicable law and the rules the jury must apply in deciding the case.

Jury Room - The conference room to where the jury goes to deliberate without the presence of any of the parties, their lawyers, the judge, or anyone else. Once the jury reaches a verdict they then return to the courtroom where the verdict is announced publicly.

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Lawyer - In the United States the same as an attorney.

Leading the Witness - Asking questions where the questioner provides the essence of the story with the witness simply saying “yes” or “no”. A party is usually not permitted by the judge to ask leading questions of their own witnesses except as to unimportant or uncontested matters.

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Mediation - An informal meeting between the parties and their lawyers under the supervision of a judge or some other person who attempts to persuade the parties to reach a settlement. Such a process is often required in some jurisdictions before a case will be permitted to proceed to trial. There are many such private mediation services which can be hired to schedule and supervise the process and the rate of success is often dependent upon the skill and diplomatic talents of the mediator.

Mediator - The person who manages and controls a mediation. Often a judge but also frequently a person privately paid by the parties in an attempt to resolve their differences.

Medical Malpractice - Failure of a health care professional or hospital to provide health care of the quality required by sound and accepted standards.

Mistrial - A trial which is not completed due to the jury’s inability to agree on a verdict or some other extraordinary circumstance and which requires a new trial.

Motion - A request by one side or the other to the judge seeking a ruling on an issue of evidence, the conduct or scheduling of the trial, or other matter.

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Negligence - A failure by a person or company with a duty to act in a certain way, resulting in harm to another.

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Oath - Every witness must agree, one way or the other, to tell the truth. This can take the form of agreeing to an oath invoking the ultimate punishment in the hereafter or a simple promise to tell the truth with the understanding that not telling the truth will expose the witness to prosecution for perjury.

Objection - A challenge made during trial by one side to the proposed evidence or conduct of the other and ruled upon by the judge.

Opening Statement - Remarks made by each side before the jury at the beginning of the trial regarding each side’s theory of the case and what they believe the evidence will show.

Oral Argument - Verbal presentation of a legal position before a court.

Order - A ruling or direction from a judge or court.

Overruled - A ruling by the judge against the side making an objection.

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Paralegal - A non-lawyer who usually has special training or experience and serves as an assistant to an attorney.

Parties - The individuals or businesses named as either plaintiff or defendant in the law suit.

Perjury - Knowingly giving false testimony with respect to an important issue after having taken an oath or affirmed that the witness would testify truthfully. This is a serious crime that can expose the false witness to imprisonment.

Plaintiff - The person or persons who bring the law suit seeking money from someone they think have caused them injury.

Pleading - Any of the key papers filed in a law suit usually beginning with the complaint, followed by the answer and other similar written statements which set forth the claims and defenses being placed before the court.

Polling the Jury - After a verdict is returned by the jury, the processing of individually asking each juror to announce in open court whether they agree or disagree with the verdict.

PreTrial Statement - A document to be filed by each side advising the court and each other of the witnesses that may be called, the damages which will be claimed, and the exhibits that may be offered at trial.

Product Liability - A claim by a person injured by a product defective in design or the way it was manufactured.

Pro se - A person representing themselves without an attorney.

Proof - Evidence presented by each side to support its version of the events in controversy. Proof can be testimony, documents, demonstrations, or exhibits.

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Recess - An interruption, usually brief, in the progress of a trial declared by the judge.

Record - The written history of the case including pleadings and trial transcript.

Recusal - The decision of a particular judge originally assigned to a case to withdraw from it due to any number of possible reasons but usually due to some connection to one side or the other which might create the possibility of actual bias or even the appearance of favoritism.

Referral fee - A percentage of the plaintiff’s lawyer’s fee that the lawyer pays to another lawyer who introduced the plaintiff. Such arrangements are not permitted in some states and such payments are typically not permitted to be made except to other lawyers.

Rehabilitation - Once a witness has been impeached on cross examination, the side who originally called the witness can attempt to undo the damage through asking questions and getting answers that show that the witness is believable.

Release - A document whereby one surrenders the right to pursue, or to continue to pursue, a claim against another, usually agreed to as part of a Settlement.

Removal - Where an out of state defendant sued in a state court may cause the case to be transferred to the federal court for that part of the United States. In theory an out of state defendant will receive more even handed treatment from a federal court judge who is not as vulnerable to the local politics of the area where the trial will be held.

Request for Admissions - Part of the discovery process where written declarations of fact are submitted by one side to the other before trial which must be “admitted” or “denied” by the side receiving the Request(s).

Request for Production of Documents - Part of the discovery process whereby one side asks the other for copies of or access to documents or other things in the possession of the opponent.

Rules - The written explanation of how the courts are to operate and how a party must proceed to bring their claim before the court. Different rules apply depending upon the court and the jurisdiction.

Ruling - A decision by a judge or court.

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Sequestration - Either side in a trial may request the judge forbid witnesses from attending the trial until they have given their testimony.

Service - Delivery of a pleading or other legal paper on the other side either through personal delivery, the mail, or some other accepted means depending upon the specific nature of the document being delivered.

Settlement - A compromise of a dispute whereby the case is resolved upon terms agreeable to each side and ending the case.

Side Bar Conference - A whispered discussion between the judge and the lawyers during a trial held off to the side of the bench furthest away from the jury so the jury cannot hear what is being said.

Small Claims Court - Called by many different names, most states maintain local courts who have the power to resolve cases involving small amounts of money or landlord and tenant disputes.

Special Damages - Amounts awarded to an injured person for specific bills or expenses. For example, medical expenses or vehicle repair bills.

State Court - Courts operated by the individual states or counties within a state and whose judges are often locally elected or appointed by local politicians. Each state court operates under their own set of rules and legal precedents which are all very similar from state to state, or similar to the federal court rules, but are often different enough that out of state lawyers may be at a disadvantage.

Statements - Any spoken words but usually the term refers to a written or tape recorded version of key facts or events given by a party or someone with first hand knowledge of something important.

Status Conference - Meeting between the judge and the lawyers to discuss the progress of the pre-trial phase of the case and to establish a schedule of deadlines for filing pre-trial statements and for the commencement of the trial.

Statute - Law adopted by a legislature and which states the rule to be applied in certain situations. Statutes always control over conflicting common law.

Stipulation - An agreement between the sides that a particular fact is to be assumed by the jury to be true without need of any evidence.

Strict Liability - Usually involving defective products or very dangerous activities where the defendant can be found to owe damages even where there has not been a showing of negligence.

Structured Settlement - An arrangement whereby the money to be paid in settlement of a claim is paid out over a period of years rather than all at once.

Subpoena - A paper form issued by the clerk, filed out by one of the parties, served upon a witness and which requires that witness to appear in the courtroom on a specific day to testify.

Summary Judgment - A dismissal of the case by a judge before trial based upon the inability of one side or the other to show that it has evidence available to support its side of the case.

Survival Action - A claim brought on behalf of a person who has died and seeking the damages to which they would have been entitled had they lived.

Sustained - A ruling by the judge in favor of the side raising an objection

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Temporary Restraining Order (“T.R.O.”) - An Order issued by a judge, usually soon after a complaint is filed, directing that the person to whom the order is directed do something or stop doing something they are doing, pending the outcome of the case or a hearing upon whether the order should be extended in time or scope.

Testimony - Spoken evidence given under oath.

Transcript - The written word by word account of what was said during a deposition, argument, or trial.

Trial - The presentation of evidence by each side in a courtroom before a jury leading to a verdict.

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United States Court of Appeals - The federal appeals court to which persons unhappy with the decisions of the United States District Court can seek review.

United States District Court - In the federal court system, the lowest level court and the level for trials within the jurisdiction of the federal courts.

United States Magistrate - A person appointed by the local United States District Court to assist in various ways including making recommendations regarding the handling of cases and motions pending at the District Court.

United States Marshall - The armed police and security personnel who serve and report to the federal court system judges.

United States Supreme Court - The last word in the United States on the interpretation of the United States Constitution and laws passed by Congress.

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Vacate - Where a judge issues an order undoing a previous order or other court action.

Verdict - The decision of the jury for one side or the other and if for the plaintiff then in what amount of money.

Voir Dire - The process whereby prospective jurors are questioned regarding their prior knowledge of the individuals involved in the case or potential biases they may have for one side or the other.

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Waiver - A loss of rights either by specific choice or through a failure to act within a required period of time or in a required manner.

Witness Fee - An amount of money, usually including travel reimbursement, required to paid to a witness, usually in advance, in order to make a subpoena enforceable.

Witness Stand - Usually raised one or two feet with a chair in which the witness sits while giving their testimony.

Witnesses - Individuals who present sworn testimony before the jury.

Workers Compensation - A system whereby employees injured on the job are untitled to be compensated regardless of whether the employer, or even the employee, is at fault.

Wrongful Death Claim - A law suit filed on behalf of the close family survivors of a person who dies of injuries sustained due to the wrongful acts or omissions of another. Those entitled to pursue such a claim, and the damages they are entitled to receive, are usually set forth in the state’s statutes.