Legal Dictionary

This page includes a list of terms and definitions. Definitions herein are in the context of law and are not meant to be exhaustive. SmartLaw strongly suggests further research into the meaning of these terms within various contexts and law related issues. These definitions are not to be relied on as legal advice or as a replacement for advice from a lawyer. For legal advice, contact SmartLaw to be referred to a qualified lawyer.


Abstract

Summary of what a court or government agency does, has done, or orders.

Accessory (criminal law)

Person that helps another person commit a crime, either before or after the crime is committed.

Accomplice (criminal law)

Person that helps another person commit a crime.

Accused (criminal law)

Person that is charged with a crime that must go to criminal court.

Acquittal (criminal law)

When a jury or a judge finds that a person on trial is not guilty.

Ad litem (Latin)

For the purpose of the legal action only.

Adoption (family law)

Way to make a relationship between a parent and child legal when the two are not biologically parent and child.

Agent

Person that has authority to act for another person.

Alibi (criminal law)

Defense claim that an accused person, factually, could not have committed a crime.

Alimony (family law)

Money that a court orders a person to pay to a spouse or ex-spouse.

Allegation

Statement or claim made which has not been proved to be true or false.

Allege

To declare, say or charge that certain facts are true, though the facts have not yet been proved.

Answer

Statement a defendant in a civil matter writes in response to a “complaint.” Includes defenses.

Appeal

When someone loses a case and subsequently asks a higher court, an appellate court, to review the decision in the prior case and decide if the decision was correct.

Arbitration (alternative dispute resolution)

Proceeding where a neutral/uninvolved person looks at evidence, hears arguments, and decides outside of a formal court proceeding.

Arraignment (criminal law)

Court proceeding in which a person accused of committing a crime goes to court, is told the charges, and is asked to plead “guilty” or “not guilty.”

Arrest warrant (criminal law)

A court order that requires a peace officer to arrest and bring a person to the court to begin a legal action.

Attorney of Record

Attorney whose name is listed as representing someone in a case.

Complaint

Legal document that usually begins a civil lawsuit. This document states the facts and identifies the action the court is asked to take.

Conservatorship

Legal right given to a person to manage the property and financial affairs of a person deemed incapable of doing that for him or herself.

Contempt of Court

Willful disobedience of a judge’s command or of an official court order.

Continuance

Rescheduling of a trial.

Contract

Legally enforceable agreement between two or more competent parties made either orally or in writing.

Counterclaim

Claim made by a defendant in a civil lawsuit against the plaintiff. In essence, this is a counter lawsuit within a lawsuit.

Court Costs

Expenses of prosecuting or defending a lawsuit other than attorney’s fees. An amount of money may be awarded to the successful party (and recoverable from the losing party) as reimbursement for court costs.

Default

Failure to respond to a lawsuit within the specified time. If a defendant does not respond in a timely way or does not appear at the trial, a “default judgment” is entered against the defendant.

Default Judgment

Judgment that occurs because of the defendant’s failure to answer or appear.

Defendant

In a civil case, the person being sued is the defendant. In a criminal case, the person charged with a crime is the defendant.

Deposition

Testimony of a witness taken under oath in preparation for a trial.

Discovery

Pretrial process by which one party discovers the evidence that will be relied on at trial by the opposing party.

Due Process of Law

Right of all persons to receive the guarantees and safeguards of the law and judicial process. Includes such constitutional requirements as adequate notice, assistance of counsel, and the rights to remain silent, to a speedy public trial, to an impartial jury, and to confront and secure witnesses.

Evidence

Things to help you prove your case, for example, documents, invoices or photographs.

Ex Parte

On behalf of only one party, without notice to any other party. For example, a request for a search warrant is an ex parte proceeding, as the person subject to the search is not notified of the proceeding and is not present during the hearing.

Felony

Crime of greater nature than a misdemeanor, usually punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary for more than a year and/or substantial fines.

Grand Jury

Group of citizens who are assembled in secret to hear or investigate allegations of criminal behavior. A grand jury has authority to conduct criminal investigations and to charge a crime by indictment. It may also have power to issue a report, or presentment, without charging a crime.

Habeas Corpus

Writ that commands that a person be brought before a judge. Most commonly, a write of habeas corpus is a legal document that forces law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding and to legally justify his or her detention.

Judgment

The final disposition of a lawsuit.

Judgment Creditor

Person who is owed money after a judgment.

Judgment Debtor

Person who owes money after a judgment.

Jurisdiction

The nature and scope of a court’s authority to hear and/or decide a case. Also, the territory from which a court is authorized to hear other cases.

Jury

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

Lien

A legal claim against another person’s property as security for a debt. A lien does not convey ownership of the property, but gives the lienholder a right to have his or her debt satisfied out of the proceeds of the property if the debt is not otherwise paid.

Magistrate

Judicial officer exercising some of the functions of a judge.

Manslaughter (criminal law)

The unlawful killing of another without intent to kill.

Mediation

An informal way to resolve disputes without going to court. Here, the parties bring their dispute to a neutral third party, who helps them agree on a settlement.

Miranda Warning

Requirement that police tell a suspect in their custody of his or her constitutional rights before they question him/her.

Misdemeanor (criminal law)

Criminal offenses considered less serious than felonies. Misdemeanors generally are punishable by a fine or a limited local jail term, but not by imprisonment in a state penitentiary.

Mistrial

A trial which is terminated before a verdict is reached, either because of some extraordinary circumstance, because of the fundamental error prejudicial to the defendant, or because of a hung jury.

Money Judgment

The amount of money the court determines is owed after trial.

Negligence

Failure to exercise that degree of care which a reasonable person would exercise under the same circumstance.

Ordinance

A local law adopted by a municipality.

Parole

The supervised conditional release of a prisoner before the expiration of his or her sentence. If the parolee observes the conditions, he or she need not serve the rest of his or her term.

Party

Person, business, or government agency actively involved in the prosecution or defense of a legal proceeding.

Perjury

The criminal offense of making a false statement under oath.

Plaintiff

The party that sues first.

Probable Cause

Sufficient legal reasons for allowing the search and seizure or the arrest of a person.

Probation

An alternative to imprisonment allowing a person found guilty of an offense to stay in the community, usually under conditions and under the supervisor of a probation officer.

Prosecutor

A trial lawyer representing the government in a criminal case.

Search Warrant

A written order issued by a judge that directs a law enforcement officer to search a specific area for a specific piece of evidence.

Self-Defense

Claim that an act otherwise criminal was legally justifiable because it was necessary to protect a person or property from the threat of action of another.

Sentence

A court’s determination of the punishment to be inflicted on a person convicted of a crime.

Settlement

An agreement between the parties disposing of a lawsuit.

Small Claims Court

A court that handles civil claims for small amounts of money.

Summary Judgment

Judgment given on the basis of pleadings, affidavits, and exhibits presented for the record without need for a trial.

Warrant

Most commonly, a court order authorizing law enforcement officers to make an arrest or conduct a search.

Witness

One who testifies that he or she has seen, heard, or otherwise experienced.

Writ

A judicial order directing a person to do something.