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Court System Basics

Legal Definitions

​Here you will find definitions for common legal terms. You can scroll through or use the quick navigation bar to choose the first letter of the word you are looking for.

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abuse (domestic abuse, domestic violence, family abuse, family violence) – Each state defines abuse or domestic violence differently. For the legal definition in your state as it applies to restraining orders, please select your state from our Restraining Orders page.

acquit – When a judge or jury decides an accused person is “not guilty” of a crime.

adjudication – The entry of a decree or an order by a court; the legal process of resolving a dispute.

alimony – Money or other financial support awarded to a spouse in a divorce action for his or her separate support. lt is usually awarded only where one spouse has been dependent on the other or has less earning power than the other and for a temporary period of time. Also called spousal support or maintenance.

annulment – A court declaration that a marriage is invalid or nonexistent. Courts annul marriages where fraud, bigamy, impotence, or another serious problem has occurred. It means that the marriage never occurred legally. Church annulments are not the same as legal annulments.

appeal – The process of going to a higher court to review the decision of a lower court.

arraignment – The initial court proceeding, in which the state formally charges the defendant with a crime, and in which the defendant usually pleads “guilty” or “not guilty.”

arrest – The initial step in the criminal justice process, in which the state deprives a suspect of his/her freedom due to alleged violations of criminal law.

assess – To figure out the value of something; to make another pay an amount of money.

assignment – To award a debt or benefits to another person. For example, a husband who does not pay child support can be forced to assign his wages to the court for his children.

asylum – The granting of protection against return to a home country to a refugee; can lead to lawful permanent resident status and eventually to citizenship.

attorney – Legal advocate who is licensed to practice law. Attorneys generally have to be “admitted” to a state’s bar before they can practice (go to court) in that state. Attorneys and lawyers are the same; these terms are used interchangeably.

attorney general for the state (AG) – Head of the state agency responsible for prosecuting violations of state laws. The AG’s office is the state’s “law firm” for civil matters. The AG’s office represents the State, either defending the State, or bringing lawsuits on behalf of the State.

bail – Money or other security provided by the defendant, or by others on his/her behalf, to assure that s/he will appear in court at the required stages of the trial process.

bench warrant – A warrant that a judge issues for someone’s arrest. A judge may issue a bench warrant in a number of circumstances, including when someone does not obey a court order or fails to come to a court hearing that s/he was ordered to come to.

book – To enter into police records a suspect’s name and the crime for which s/he was arrested.

brief – A written legal argument, stating the legal reasons for the lawsuit based on statutes, regulations, case precedents, legal texts, and reasoning applied to facts in the particular situation. A brief is submitted to lay out the argument for various petitions and motions before the court, to counter the arguments of opposing lawyers, and to provide the judge with reasons to rule in favor of the party represented by the brief writer.

clerk – The court official who keeps court records and files.

compensate – To give one party money or other benefits to make up for a loss or problem.

competent – Being “legally fit” to make decisions. The court may decide if a person is competent or incompetent. If someone is incompetent, the court may appoint a legal guardian to make decisions for that person.

consent – Free and willing agreement. (e.g., A “consent order” is made when both parties agree to the terms of the order and then the judge signs off on it.)

consortium – The services of a spouse. Services include household tasks one spouse performs for another and/or in addition to sexual services. (Term is used in law suits for “loss of consortium” where one spouse loses the services of the other and can sue for damages; available only in some states.)

contempt of court– Committed by a person who intentionally disobeys a court order, acts in a way that does not respect the authority and dignity of the court, or fails to follow a court order.

continuance – The postponing (rescheduling for later) of a court hearing. If you ask a judge for a continuance, s/he may or may not give it to you.

convey – To give, sell, or transfer something to another person.

court – Place where civil and criminal trials are held.

court officer – An officer of the court who protects the judge and keeps order in the courtroom. In a criminal case, the officer is in charge of the accused person while he is in the courtroom; and looks after the jurors.

court reporter – A legal stenographer who records what happens during official court proceedings.

criminal case – A legal proceeding brought by the state, county, or city against someone, charging the person with a crime.

damages – An award of money to the winning party in a lawsuit. Actual damages are out-of-pocket expenses such as lost wages or hospital bills. Actual damages in some cases may include an award for psychological harm. Punitive damages are an award to punish the wrongful party for willful improper action.

default judgment – A judgment made against someone who did not defend himself/herself against a claim. For example, someone asking the court for a restraining order may get one by default judgment if the accused abuser does not come to court.

defraud – To cheat or steal by false representation.

defendant – Person with charges or a lawsuit against him or her. This term is used in both criminal and civil cases. (The defendant is also sometimes called the “respondent.”)

defense attorney – The lawyer who represents the defendant.

delinquent – a minor under a certain age (depending on the state’s laws) who commits a crime. Also known as a “juvenile delinquent.”

district attorney – The attorney(s) employed by the state to prosecute people for state criminal offenses. Also known as prosecutors, they represent the state. A city government may also have attorneys assigned to prosecute city charges. These people function like district attorneys on a local level.

domestic violence – Each state defines domestic violence differently. For the legal definition in your state as it applies to restraining orders, please go to our Restraining Orders section and choose your state from the drop-dwon menu.

domicile – The place where you live.

emancipation – The process by which a minor child is declared to be an “adult” by a court of law. The child must petition the court for this right. The age at which you can file for emancipation is set by law in each state.

evidence – Proof; witnesses’ testimony; written statements or physical objects that someone presents at trial to make his or her case.

  • testimonial evidence – Statements that witnesses make under oath at a trial.
  • demonstrative evidence – Physical items that the parties introduce at trial, such as records, documents, exhibits, and objects such as guns or other weapons.

ex parte – A Latin phrase meaning “on one side only.” A judicial proceeding or order is said to be “ex parte” when it is taken or granted for the benefit of one party only, and without notice to any other person adversely affected. For example, you might have an “ex parte” hearing on your request for a restraining order during which a judge listens only to your side and then can grant you the order without the defendant (the abuser) present. The order will be temporary until the judge can hold a full court hearing with the defendant present to tell his/her side of the story.

examination – The questioning of a witness by a lawyer at a trial or deposition. When the lawyer calls a witness for his/her case and questions the witness, the questioning is called direct examination. When the opposing lawyer questions the same witness, the questioning is called cross-examination.

false imprisonment – The unlawful detainment of another person. This happens when one person deprives another of freedom of movement by holding that person in a confined space or by physical restraint. Examples include being locked in a car without opportunity to get out, being tied to a chair, or being locked in a closet.

felony – A serious criminal offense such as murder, for which the sentence can include imprisonment for more than a year.

frivolous – A pleading or claim is frivolous if no rational or reasonable arguments can be made to support the claim, and its purpose was to delay the court or embarass the opponent.

grand jury – A group of citizens who decide whether there is “reasonable cause” to believe the defendant has committed a crime and whether an indictment should be issued.

guardian ad litem – The person assigned by the court to represent the interests of a minor child or incompetent person in legal proceedings - the term “ad litem” is a Latin phrase meaning “for the purpose of legal action.” In some states, a guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to perform investigations or evaluations in custody cases, and to make reports to the court, sometimes with recommendations.

impound – To seize and take into custody of the law or of a court.

indictment – A written accusation by a grand jury charging an individual with a crime, generally a felony.

injunction – A court order prohibiting someone from doing some specified act or commanding someone to undo some wrong or injury.

liable – Legally responsible.

judge – The person who is appointed to decide cases and to make sure that legal procedures are followed in the courtroom.

jurisdiction – Authority (power) of a court to listen to and decide cases. Each court has the authority to hear certain cases. State and federal laws determine which subjects courts may decide and whether the court’s decision will be binding on someone who lives in another state.

jury – A group of people who determine the guilt or non-guilt of the defendant or, in a civil case, who decide which party wins the lawsuit. The lawyers screen the jury to make sure the people on it are neutral (impartial).

malpractice – Any professional misconduct or unreasonable lack of skill in a professional duty.

misdemeanor – Considered to be a “lesser offense” than a felony and that can lead to imprisonment for up to one year.

negligence – Carelessness or lack of care. A person could be negligent if she or he fails to act reasonably or take reasonable precautions.

offender – The perpetrator or criminal.

paternity – Fatherhood. Paternity can be established through a legal acknowledgment by the parents or though a court hearing, DNA test, etc. The exact method for establishing paternity may vary by state.

perjury – When someone purposefully give “materially” false or misleading testimony while under oath. Testimony is generally “material” if it relates to important or deciding facts in the case or proceeding. (Note: This is a general definition of perjury. Since perjury can be a crime, the actual definitions and the criminal penalties can vary from state to state.)

persecution – (In asylum proceedings) The infliction of serious suffering or harm, caused by government action or inaction, upon people who differ in a way regarded as offensive (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion) in a manner condemned by civilized governments.

petition – A request to a court. (Also sometimes called an “application.”)

petitioner – Someone who presents a petition to a court or other official body. In many civil cases (such as protection order proceedings), the party who files the petition is referred to as the petitioner.

plaintiff – The party who brings a civil suit in a court of law.

plea – The defendant’s response to a criminal charge, generally “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “no contest.”

plea-bargaining – The process through which the prosecutor and the defense attorney try to reach an agreement where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence/ punishment.

probable cause – A reasonable ground for belief in certain alleged facts; having more evidence for something than against it. For example, probable cause must exist for a law enforcement officer to make an arrest without a warrant, search without a warrant, or seize property in the belief the items were evidence of a crime.

prosecute – To carry out a judicial proceeding; to proceed against a person criminally. A district attorney prosecutes cases against persons alleged to have committed violations of state criminal law; this is why the district attorney can also be known as a “prosecutor.”

prosecutor – An attorney who represents the state on behalf of the victim of a crime. He or she tries to present evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime as charged. A prosecutor will be assigned for criminal cases but not civil ones.

protection order, order of protection – A court order for someone to behave in a certain way (such as staying away from a victim and his/her home) and to stop violations of laws or court orders; may be called different names in different states, such as restraining order, injunction, etc.

public defender – An attorney appointed by the court for the legal defense of someone charged with a crime who is unable to afford or obtain legal assistance. The public defender is paid by the state, not by the person being represented (the client).

punitive damages – See “damages.”

quash – To annul, make void or suppress. The recipient of a subpoena or the party against whom the subpoena is filed can file a “motion to quash” in court to ask the judge to dismiss the subpoena so that the subpoenaed party does not have to comply.

respondent – The party against whom a petition or motion is filed. In many civil cases (such as protection order proceedings), the party against whom the case is brought is referred to as the respondent.

refugee – A person outside his or her own country who is unable or unwilling to use the protection of that country because of persecution, or a well founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

regulations – Operating procedures (rules) of government agencies.

restraining order – See “protection order, order of protection.”

sentence – The punishment or penalty that the judge gives to a person who has plead guilty or whom a jury has found guilty.

service of process – In the context of a restraining order, the actual delivery of court paperwork that informs a person of an upcoming hearing and any temporary restraining orders against him/her. When someone receives this paperwork, s/he has been served.

settlement – A written compromise reached by the parties in a civil case and approved by a judge.

stalking – Each state defines stalking differently. Please see our State Statutes page for your state and look for the definition of stalking in the criminal code or penal code section.You can also go to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Prevention Center’s website.

statutes – Laws passed by state or federal legislators. You can research them in law libraries or on the internet. The constitution is supreme over all statutes, and statutes have more authority than regulations.

subpoena – An order of the court that commands a witness to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony about a specific matter (subpoena ad testificandum) or commands a person/organization to provide specific documents (subpoena duces tecum). Any person who fails to comply with the subpoena may be held in contempt of court.

suspend – To stop temporarily or to postpone on certain conditions.

testify – To give evidence under oath in a legal proceeding.

trial – The process through which all parties to a civil or criminal case have the opportunity to prove their sides of the case through evidence, testimony, etc.

vacate – To cancel or set aside.

verdict – The decision made by the jury in a trial as to the guilt or non-guilt of the defendant.

violation – The term violation can be used to refer to a type of low-level criminal offense (less serious than a misdemeanor). However, generally, a violation can also be when someone disobeys a court order – for example, a person can be charged with violation of a protection order, which can be a misdemeanor crime or a felony crime.

voir dire – The process through which parties to a court case question and select jurors for a trial. This may be done differently in criminal cases than in civil cases.

witness – A person who testifies as to his or her knowledge of the facts related to a particular case.

waive – To give up certain rights or responsibilities. (Examples: To “waive” your right to an attorney means you are giving up that right. You can also ask the court to “waive” any fees if you can’t pay them. The court then gives up its right to collect fees from you.)