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.
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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
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.
- 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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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
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
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
Insurance Adjuster - Usually a person employed
by or on behalf of an insurance carrier to investigate an insurance
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
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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.
Release - Permitting fewer than all defendants to settle while
the case continues against the defendant(s) who has not agreed to
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
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
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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
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.