A Glossary of Legal and Court-Specific Terms
You may see or come across the following terms and definitions throughout our courses and in your career as a private investigator.
Acquittal: Final judgment that a defendant in a criminal trial has not been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; "not guilty."
Affidavit: A written declaration made under oath; a written statement sworn to be true before someone legally authorized to administer an oath.
Appeal: A request made to a Court of Appeals (Appellate Court) by a party of a legal proceeding who believes that the original court or legal venue has made certain specific legal or procedural errors that resulted in a less favorable or incorrect decision. The appellate court’s job is then to review the lower court’s ruling or action to determine if it was correct. One who appeals is called the "appellant."
Arraignment: A proceeding in which an individual, who is accused of committing a crime, is brought into court to hear the specific charges levied against them and then asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, nolo contendre, etc.
Bail: Security given for the release of a criminal defendant in custody to secure his appearance on the day and time set by the court.
Bench Trial: A trial in which a judge decides which party prevails rather than a jury.
Brief: A written statement submitted by each party in a legal proceeding that explains why the court should decide or rule in that party's favor.
Chambers: A judge's office.
Capital Offense: A crime punishable by the death penalty.
Case Law: The law as reflected and shaped by the history of decisions of the courts.
Chief Judge: The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration and management of a court system.
Class Action: A civil action brought by one or more individuals on behalf of themselves and "all others similarly situated" (or some other equivalent language).
Conviction: A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.
Counsel: To give legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a legal proceeding.
Damages: Money awarded to plaintiffs to be paid by the defendant of a civil suit in order to compensate them for their injuries.
Default Judgment: A judgment automatically entered in favor of the plaintiff because of the defendant failed to answer or appear to contest the plaintiff's claim after being properly notified.
Defendant: A person or institution against whom an action is brought in a court of law; the person being sued or accused. See also Plaintiff.
Deposition: An oral statement made before an officer of the court authorized to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or gain information and testimony to be used later in trial.
Discovery: The process by which lawyers learn about the opposing party’s case during their preparation for trial. Typical tools of discovery include depositions, interrogatories, requests for admissions, and requests for documents.
District Attorney: An elected official charged to prosecute and defend cases on behalf of the people or State. The District Attorney employs a staff of Assistant District Attorneys also called prosecutors.
Docket: A log containing the complete history of each legal proceeding in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing court proceedings.
Evidence: Testimony, records, documents, material objects, or other things presented at a trial to prove the existence or nonexistence of a fact.
Felony: A crime of a more serious nature than a misdemeanor; generally, a criminal offense punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year.
Grand Jury: A group of 16-23 citizens who listen to evidence of criminal allegations presented by the District Attorney and his or her prosecutors in order to determine whether there is enough probable cause to bring that individual to trial. See also Indictment.
Habeas Corpus: A court order that is usually used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of his imprisonment. A writ of habeas corpus may also be used to bring a person in custody before the court to give testimony or to be prosecuted.
Hearsay: Testimony by a witness who does not have first hand knowledge of a specific incident in question but heard about it from someone else; not typically admissible as evidence in court.
Impeachment: The process of calling a witness' testimony into doubt or proving that it is false.
Indictment: The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial.
Injunction: A court’s order compelling or prohibiting a defendant from performing specific acts.
Jurisdiction: The legal authority of a court to preside over a legal proceeding.
Jury: The group of citizens selected to hear evidence in a trial and render a verdict as a result.
Jury Instructions: A judge's directions to the jury before it begins deliberations regarding the factual questions it must answer and the legal rules that it must apply in rendering a decision.
Jurisprudence: The study of law and the structure of the legal system.
Liability: Something for which one is liable; an obligation or legal responsibility.
Magistrate Judge: A judicial officer of a district court who conducts initial proceedings in criminal cases, decides criminal misdemeanor cases, conducts many pretrial civil and criminal matters on behalf of district judges, and decides civil cases with the consent of the parties.
Misdemeanor: A lesser criminal offense punishable by one year of imprisonment or less.
Mistrial: To invalidate a trial by causing or committing a fundamental procedural or legal error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again with the selection of a new jury.
Motion: A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.
Negligence: The failure to do something that a reasonable person, guided by ordinary considerations, would do; or the doing of something that a reasonable and prudent person would not do.
Nolo Contendre: "I will not contest it." Plea which has same effect as pleading guilty, except that nolo contendre plea in a criminal case may not be used against the same person in another criminal trial or civil suit based on the same facts.
Opinion: A judge's written explanation of his or her decision.
Oral Argument: An opportunity for lawyers to “make their case” before the court.
Perjury: Making a false statement while under oath.
Petty Offense: A federal misdemeanor punishable by six months or less in prison.
Plaintiff: A person who brings an action in a court of law. See also Defendant.
Plea: A criminal defendant's statement in which he answers the charges levied against him with a reply of either "guilty" or "not guilty."
Pleadings: Written statements filed with the court in which counsel describes a party's legal or factual assertions regarding the legal proceeding.
Precedent: A court decision rendered in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently being contested. Judges will generally "follow precedent;" meaning that they will use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases unless the previous case is found or proved to be faulty.
Pretrial Conference: A meeting of the judge and lawyers to plan the trial, to discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, to review proposed evidence and witnesses, and to set a trial schedule. Typically, the judge and the parties also discuss the possibility of settlement of the case.
Pretrial Services: A department of the district court that conducts an investigation of a criminal defendant's background in order to help a judge decide whether to release the defendant on bail.
Probation: A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which the court releases convicted defendants under supervision of a probation officer, who makes certain that the defendant follows certain conditions of his release.
Pro Se: A Latin term meaning "on one's own behalf"; in courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.
Prosecute: To charge someone with a crime. A District Attorney and his assistants bring and try criminal cases on behalf of the people.
Public Defender: An attorney employed by the courts to provide a legal defense for criminal defendants who are unable to afford counsel.
Record: A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the proceeding.
Remand: “To send.” For example, the act of an appellate court sending (or remanding) a case to a lower court for further proceedings or a command to remand a defendant into the state’s custody to serve a sentence after being found guilty.
Reverse: The act of an appellate court setting aside the decision of a trial court. A reversal is often accompanied by a remand to the lower court for further proceedings.
Sentence: The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.
Sentencing Guidelines: A set of rules and principles established that trial judges use to determine the sentence for a convicted defendant.
Sequester: To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.
Service of Process: Notifying a person that he or she has been named as a party to a lawsuit or has been accused of some offense. Process consists of a summons, citation or warrant, to which a copy of the complaint is attached.
Statute: A law passed by a legislature.
Subpoena: A command, issued under authority of a court or other authorized government entity, to a witness to appear and give testimony; also referred to as a Summons.
Subpoena Duces Tecum: A command to a witness to appear and produce documents.
Summary Judgment (SDT): A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when it is not necessary to resolve any factual disputes in the case.
Temporary Restraining Order (TRO): Prohibits a person from taking an action that is likely to cause irreparable harm. This differs from an injunction in that it may be granted immediately, without notice to the opposing party, and without a hearing. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held.
Testimony: Evidence given by a competent witness, under oath, in any legal proceeding; distinguished from evidence derived from writings and other sources.
Tort: Any action or inaction that wrongs, damages, or injures another, and thus forms the basis of a civil lawsuit.
Transcript: A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial, or during some other formal conversation, such as a hearing or oral deposition.
Venue: The geographical location in which a case is tried.
Verdict: The decision of a trial jury or judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant or the final outcome of a civil case.
Voir Dire: The process by which judges and lawyers select a trial jury from among those eligible to serve, by questioning them to make certain that they would fairly decide the case.
Warrant: A written order directing the arrest of a party. A search warrant orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence.
Witness: Someone who sees an event and reports what happened; a person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.
Writ: A formal written command or order of the court requiring the performance of a specified act.