COMMON LEGAL TERMS:
Disclaimer: This list of common legal terms was compiled by Attorney Chad Bank solely as a public service. He does not warrant the accuracy of the information contained herein nor is he responsible for any errors or omissions and assumes no liability for its use. This information is by necessity general in nature and is not intended as legal advice, but rather information, which may be helpful in understanding some common legal terms.
AKA: “Also known as”. Used to list aliases or another name, or another spelling of a name used by a person.
Acknowledgement: The signature of a clerk or attorney certifying that the person filing the document has sworn that the contents are true, and/or that the document is signed by his or her free act and deed.
Action: Also called a case or lawsuit. A civil judicial proceeding where one party sues another for a wrong done, or to protect a right or to prevent a wrong.
Adjournment: Postponement of a court session until another time or place.
Adjudication: A decision or sentence imposed by a judge.
Adult Probation: A legal status, applied to people 16 years of age and older, who have been convicted of a crime and placed under the supervision of a probation officer for a period of time set by the court.
Affirmation: Declaring something to be true under the penalty of perjury by a person who will not take an oath for religious or other reasons.
Affidavit: A written statement made under oath.
Alimony: Money a court requires one spouse to pay the other spouse for support before and/or after the divorce is granted. If you do not ask for alimony at the final hearing, you can never get it in the future.
Allegation: Saying that something is true. The assertion, declaration, or statement of a party in a case, made in a pleading.
Alternate Juror: A juror selected as a substitute in case another juror must leave the jury panel.
Annulment: A court order declaring that a marriage is invalid.
Answer: A court document, or pleading, in a civil case by which the defendant responds to the plaintiff’s complaint.
Appeal: Asking a higher court to review the decision or sentence of a trial court because the lower court made an error.
Appearance: The official court form filed with the court clerk, which tells the court that you are representing yourself in a lawsuit or criminal case or that an attorney is representing you. All court notices and calendars will be mailed to the address listed on the form. When a defendant in a civil case files an appearance, the person is submitting to the court’s jurisdiction.
Appellant: The party appealing a decision or judgment to a higher court.
Appellee: The party against whom an appeal is taken.
Arbitration: Submitting a case or dispute to designated parties for a decision, instead of using a judge.
Arraignment: The first court appearance of a person accused of a crime. The person is advised of his or her rights by a judge and may respond to the criminal charges by entering a plea. Usually happens the morning after a person is arrested.
Arrest: When a person is taken into custody by a police officer and charged with a crime.
Arrearages: Money for alimony and/or child support, which is overdue and unpaid.
Assistant Attorney General: An attorney who represents a state agency in civil cases.
Attachment: A lien on property or assets to hold it to pay or satisfy any final judgment.
Attorney of Record: Attorney whose name appears in the permanent records or files of a case.
Bail: Also called Bond. Money or property given to the court for the temporary release of a defendant, to ensure that the defendant will return to court.
Bail Bondsperson: A person who lends money to a defendant to pay for bail.
Bar: Refers to attorneys as a group.
Best Interest of the Child: The standard a judge uses to decide custody and visitation issues.
Bench Warrant: Court papers issued by the judge, “from the bench,” for the arrest of a person.
Bond: Also called bail. Money or property given to the court for the temporary release of a defendant, to ensure that the defendant will return to court. There are two kinds of bonds:
Non-financial bonds: a) Non-surety bond where the defendant’s signature alone guarantees the amount of bond and the defendant is not required to post any property or retain the services of a professional bail bondsperson as collateral.
b) Promise to appear.
Surety bond: The court requires cash, real estate or a professional bail bondpersons signature as collateral before releasing the defendant back into the community. (The court may allow the defendant to post ten percent of the bond in cash to secure his or her release.)
Bond Forfeiture (calling the Bond): If the defendant fails to appear in court as scheduled, the judge may order the bond forfeited (paid to the state) and the defendant rearrested.
Bond Review: A hearing for a judge to decide if the defendant’s bond amount needs to be changed.
Bondsman: A surety; one who has put up cash or property as collateral before a defendant may be released.
Brief: A written document prepared by a lawyer or party on each side of a dispute and filed with the court in support of their arguments.
Calendar: A list of court cases scheduled for a specific date and time; the civil and family court docket.
Case: A lawsuit or action in a court.
Certify: To testify in writing; to make known or establish as a fact.
Challenge: Rejecting a potential juror.
Charge: Formal accusation of a crime.
Chattels: All property except real property; personal property. For example: jewelry, clothing, furniture, and appliances.
Child Support: Money paid by a parent to help meet the financial needs of a child.
Community Service: Work that convicted defendants are required to perform in order to repay the community for the harm caused to the community by the crime.
Complaint: A legal document that tells the court what you want, and is served with a summons on the defendant to begin the case.
Conditional Discharge: A disposition, in criminal cases, where the defendant must satisfy certain court-ordered conditions instead of a prison term.
Contempt of Court: A finding that someone disobeyed a court order. Can also mean disrupting court, for example, by being loud or disrespectful in court.
Continuance: The adjournment or postponement of a court case to another day.
Continuance Date: Date on which the case will next be heard in court.
Contract: A legally enforceable agreement between two or more persons or parties.
Conviction: To be found guilty of committing a crime.
Costs: Expenses in prosecuting or defending a case in court. Usually does not include attorney’s fees.
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-Appointed Attorney: An attorney who is asked by the court (judge) to either represent a party to the case, or to serve in some other capacity that the case requires.
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.
Court Trial: Trial by a judge, rather than by a jury.
Cross-Examination: Questioning by a party or the attorney of an adverse party or a witness.
Custody: A court order deciding where a child will live and how decisions about the child will be made. Parents may ask for any custody arrangement that they believe is in the best interest of their child.
Damages: Money a party receives as compensation for a legal wrong.
Declaration: An unsworn statement of facts made by a party to the transaction, or by one, who has an interest in the facts recounted.
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.
Dismissal: A judge’s decision to end the case.
Dismissal Without Prejudice: A judges decision to end the case, which permits the complainant or prosecutor to renew the case later. In contrast, dismissal “with prejudice” prevents the complainant or prosecutor to bring or maintain the same claim or action again.
Dispose: Ending a legal case or a judicial proceeding.
Disposition: The manner in which a case is settled or resolved.
Dissolution: The legal end of a marriage, also called a divorce.
Diversion: Community based programs that are used to keep eligible, convicted criminal offenders out of prison.
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.
Domicile: The permanent home of a person. A person may have several residences, but only one domicile.
Drug Court: A Special Session of the Superior Court that is responsible for hearing cases involving charges of drug offenses.
Electronic Monitoring: An electronic system that provides the Probation Officer or Bail Commissioner a report about whether the offender has left home during the time when the offender was required to remain at his or her home.
Emancipated Minor: A person under the legal majority age of 18 who is granted most rights and legal privileges of an adult.
Emancipation: The release of a youth from the legal authority and control of the youth’s parents and the corresponding release of the youth’s parents from their obligations to the youth.
Eminent Domain: The legal process by which private property is taken for public use without the consent of the owner.
Eviction: Legally forcing a tenant out of rented property.
Evidence: Testimony, documents or objects presented at a trial to prove a fact.
Ex Parte: Done for, or at the request of, one side in a case only, without prior notice to the other side.
Failure to Appear: In a civil case, failing to file an Appearance form. In a criminal case, failing to come to court for a scheduled hearing.
Felony: A felony is any offense punishable by a fine of more than $1,000 fine or imprisonment for more than one year. As is true of misdemeanors, the sentence may consist of jail, probation, a fine, or any combination. Although a felony is the most serious type of crime a person can commit, there are lots of different felonies and some are more serious than others. Felonies include murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and arson, but also include breaking and entering, forgery, and stealing property worth more than $500.
Filing: Giving the court clerk legal papers which become part of the case file.
Foreclosure: A court order ending the legal ownership of property.
Foreman: An elected member of a jury who delivers the verdict to the court.
Garnishment: A court order to collect money or property. For example, a garnishment may be issued to an employer to pay part of an employee’s wages to someone else to pay a debt or judgment.
Grievance: A complaint filed against an attorney or judge, claiming an ethics violation.
Guardian: A person who has the power and duty to take care of another person and/or to manage the property and rights of another person who is considered incapable of taking care of his or her personal affairs.
Guardian Ad Litem: A person, usually a parent, appointed by the court to represent a child or unborn person in a court case. If a family member is not available, a judge may appoint an attorney.
Habeas Corpus: A court order used to bring a person physically before a court in order to test the legality of the person’s detention. Usually, it is directed to the official or person detaining another, commanding him to bring the person to court for the judge to determine if that person has been denied liberty without due process of law.
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.
Incarceration: Confinement to a state correctional institute or prison.
Indigent: Someone without enough money to either support himself or herself or his or her family. Someone who cannot afford to pay certain fees required by the court.
Injunction: A court order to stop doing or to start doing a specific act.
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.
Judgment File: A permanent court record of the court’s final disposition of the case.
Jurisdiction: Power and authority of a court to hear and make a judgment in a case.
Juror: Member of a jury.
Juvenile Delinquent: A person under the age of 16 who commits a criminal act.
Legal Custody: Relationship with a child created by court order, which gives a person legal responsibility for the physical possession of a minor and the duty to protect, care for and discipline the child.
Legal Separation: A court order describing the conditions under which two married people will live separately.
Lien: A charge, hold, or claim upon property of another as security for a debt.
Lis Pendens: A pending lawsuit. Jurisdiction or control that courts have over property in a case waiting for final disposition. A notice of lis pendens is filed on the land records.
Litigant: A party to a case.
Lockout: Illegally forcing a tenant out of rented property, usually by changing the locks on the doors.
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.
Marshal: The persons responsible for courthouse security including the metal detectors at the entrance of each courthouse and maintaining order in each courtroom. A marshal can also serve (give copies of) legal papers to the other people named in a lawsuit.
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.
Misdemeanor: A “petty misdemeanor” is any offense punishable by a fine of $500 or less and/or by imprisonment for six months or less. There are very few petty misdemeanors and little difference between a “petty misdemeanor” and a regular misdemeanor in Rhode Island. Any offense whose penalty is imprisonment for more than six months but not more than one year, or a fine of more than $500 but not more than $1000, is a regular “misdemeanor.” On conviction of a misdemeanor, a sentence may include jail, probation, a fine, or some combination. Sometimes restitution is ordered as well. Often, a fine may be paid in installments so long as payments are regular and timely. Some examples of misdemeanors are driving while intoxicated, stealing property worth less than $500, and simple assault. Lots of offenses are misdemeanors.
Mitigating Circumstances: Circumstances that may be considered to reduce the guilt of a defendant. Usually based on fairness or mercy.
Modification: Request to change a prior order. Usually requires showing a change in circumstances since the date of the prior order.
Motion: Usually written request to the court in a case. Filed with the clerk’s office.
Neglected Minor: A child or youth who has (a) been abandoned, (b) is being denied proper attention, (c) is being permitted to live under conditions injurious to his/her well being, or (d) has been abused.
No Contact Order: A court order that prohibits contact by a defendant with a victim; can be ordered by a judge, a bail commissioner, a probation officer or a parole officer.
No Fault Divorce: The most common kind of divorce, where no one needs to prove that the husband or the wife is at fault, or caused the marriage to end. Described as “broken down irretrievably”.
Nolo Contendere: It means “no contest”. A plea in a criminal case that allows the defendant to be convicted without admitting guilt for the crime charged. Although a finding of guilty is entered on the criminal court record; the defendant can deny the charges in a civil action based on the same acts.
No Contest: A plea in a criminal case that allows the defendant to be convicted without admitting guilt for the crime charged. Also called nolo contendre. Although a finding of guilty is entered on the criminal court record, the defendant can deny the charges in a civil action based on the same acts.
Notarize: To formally complete a document by acknowledgement or oath.
Oath: To swear/affirm to the truth of a statement/document.
Order: A written direction of a court or judge to do or refrain from doing certain acts.
Parcel: A tract or a plot of land.
Parole: Release from incarceration after serving part of a sentence.
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.
Paternity: Legal fatherhood.
Perjury: Making false statements under oath.
Petition: A formal written request to a court, which starts a special proceeding. In juvenile court, the legal document which specifies the complaint against the juvenile and/or family; it includes the name, age and address of the minor and his/her guardian, as well as the statutory grounds and facts upon which the request for the court intervention is based.
Petitioner: Another word for plaintiff, the person starting the lawsuit.
Plaintiff: The person who sues or starts a civil case, also called the petitioner or the complainant.
Plea: An accused persons answer to a criminal charge. For example: not guilty; guilty; no contest.
Plea Bargain: The agreement a defendant makes with the prosecutor to avoid a trial. Usually involves pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Pleadings: The court documents filed with the court by the parties in a civil or criminal case. For example: motion to dismiss; motion for modification.
Pretrial: In a civil case, a conference with a judge or trial referee to discuss discovery and settlement. In a criminal case, a conference with the prosecutor, defense attorney and judge to discuss the case status and what will happen next.
Pretrial Hearing: Conference with attorneys to determine scope of possible trial with view toward resolving issues through agreement.
Probable Cause Hearing: A hearing held before a judge in criminal cases to determine if enough evidence exists to prosecute. The probable cause hearing must be conducted within 60 days of the filing of the complaint or information in Superior Court, unless the accused person waives the time or the court grants an extension based on good cause.
Probate/Probate Court: A court with limited authority to hear certain kinds of cases, such as adoption, guardianship, mental health commitments. Not a part of the Superior Court system.
Probation: When a convicted offender receives a suspended term of incarceration and is then supervised by a probation officer for a period of time set by a judge.
Probation Absconder: A person under probation supervision whose location is unknown, in violation of the conditions of their probation.
Promise to Appear: A type of non-financial bond where the defendant agrees to return to court without giving cash or property.
Pro Se: A Latin phrase meaning for “yourself”–representing yourself in any kind of case.
Pro se Divorce: Do it yourself divorce.
Prosecute: To carry on a case or judicial proceeding. To proceed against a person criminally.
Prosecutor: Also called the state’s attorney. Represents the state in a criminal case against a defendant.
Protective Order: A criminal court order issued by a judge to protect a family or household member.
Public Defender: An attorney appointed and paid by the state who defends a person in a criminal case after the court finds that the person is indigent–financially unable to hire a private attorney.
Ready: Means ready to start the trial or begin oral argument. Usually said by an attorney or party in response to a judge calling the list of scheduled cases.
Record: The pleadings, the exhibits and the transcript made by the court reporter of all proceedings in a trial.
Residential Treatment Programs: Programs that provide extensive drug or alcohol treatment on an inpatient basis.
Rest: To be done presenting the evidence in a case, as in “the plaintiff rests”.
Restitution: Money ordered to be paid by the defendant to the victim to reimburse the victim for the costs of the crime. Generally making good, or giving the equivalent for any loss, damage or injury caused by a persons actions. Often a condition of probation.
Restraining Order: A civil court order to protect a family or household member from physical abuse.
Revocation Hearing: A hearing held before a judge to determine whether or not a person has violated the conditions of probation. If there is a finding that a violation has occurred, the judge may impose all or part of the original sentence.
Rule to Show Cause: Summons compelling a person to appear in court on a specific date to answer to a request that certain orders be modified or vacated.
Seal: A court order closing a case file from public review, usually in cases of youthful offenders and acquittal. Prevents the public from obtaining information on the cases.
Sentences: The penalty imposed by a judge after the defendant is convicted of a crime. Sentences can be: Concurrent – Multiple sentences will be served at the same time (i.e., sentences of 10 years, 8 years and 2 years – to be served concurrently – equal a total effective sentence of 10 years.) Consecutive – The sentences are served back-to-back. The same example above would equal a total effective sentence of 20 years.
Sentencing: When a criminal defendant is brought before a judge after conviction for ordering the terms of the punishment.
Sentence Modification: A defendant’s written application to the sentencing judge or court to reduce the sentence at any time during the sentence. The judge conducts a hearing. If the original sentence was more than three years, the prosecutor must agree.
Sentence Review: A defendant’s written application to a three judge panel to review the sentence. Must be filed within 30 days after being sentenced with the court clerk. A review decision can increase or decrease the sentence.
Serious Juvenile Offender: A child who has been adjudicated by the juvenile court for a serious juvenile offense.
Serious Juvenile Offense: Certain criminal offenses listed in the Connecticut General Statutes, which are crimes against persons, serious property crimes and certain drug offenses. A juvenile charged with a Serious Juvenile Offense by police may be admitted to a Juvenile Detention Center with a prior court order and may be released only by order of a judge of the Superior Court.
Service: The legal method for giving a copy of the court papers being filed to other parties in a case.
Small Claims: Civil actions to recover damages, or money, up to $5000.The rules of evidence are relaxed and people often represent themselves instead of hiring an attorney.
States Attorney: An attorney who represents the state in criminal cases. The prosecutor.
Statute: A law enacted by a legislative body.
Statute of Limitations: A certain time allowed by law for starting a case. For example, six years in a contract case.
Stay: Temporarily stopping a judicial proceeding.
Stipulation: A written agreement by the parties or their attorneys.
Subpoena: A command to appear in court to testify as a witness.
Substance Abuse Education: A community based program for drug offenders that provides education about the harmful effects of drug abuse and also supervises community service.
Substitute Charge: In a criminal case, a charge that replaces the original charge by the prosecutor.
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.
Time Served: A sentence of incarceration equal to the amount of time a defendant has already spent in state custody waiting for disposition of the case.
Title: Legal recognition of the ownership of property, usually proven by a document.
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.
Uncared For: Legal description of a child or youth who is homeless or whose home cannot provide the specialized care, which his/her physical, emotional or mental condition requires.
Unconditional Discharge: A sentence in a criminal case in which the defendant is released without imprisonment, probation supervision or conditions.
Vacate: To cancel or rescind a court order.
Venue: The court location.
Victim Services Advocate: A person who assesses a victim’s needs and helps the victim understand the court case, how to exercise their rights and how to access other resources.
Visitation: A court order deciding the amount of time a non-custodial parent may spend with his or her child, also called parenting time or access.
Violation: An offense for which the only sentence authorized is a fine.
Violation of Probation: Action or inaction that disobeys a condition of probation.
Wage Execution: The process of deducting money from wages to pay a judgment. Also called a garnishment or attachment.
Wage Withholding: A court order to deduct child support or alimony payments from someone’s wages. All child support court orders must include an income withholding order unless both parents ask the judge not to.
Witness: A person who testifies to what they saw, heard, observed or did.
Writ: Legal paper filed to start various types of civil lawsuits.
Youth: Any person sixteen (16) to eighteen (18) years of age.
Youthful Offender: The legal status of persons who have been arrested for a crime committed when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and who meet other requirements. All 16- and 17- year-old defendants are treated as youthful offenders, except those who have been charged with certain felonies, have already been convicted of a felony on the adult docket, or have been adjudicated as a serious juvenile offender. For defendants treated as Youthful Offenders, the information and proceedings are confidential and do not become a part of the person’s criminal record.