Legalese, Translated: Law 101


If you’ve ever read through a contract or examined the fine print of a warranty, you know the letter of the law can be dense and confusing stuff. It becomes even more complicated once you become involved in actual legal proceedings. In light of this, we’ve put together our “Legalese, Translated” blog post series. Each installment will explain a collection of legal terms in plain English, from the mainstream lawyer-speak you might hear on your favorite crime drama to more specialized language reserved for certain types of cases. While any legal document or proceeding should be thoroughly examined, understood, and explained to you by your attorney of choice, we hope this resource gives you some context and clarity both in and out of the court room.

This week, we’re kicking off our “Legalese, Translated” series by reviewing some of the most common legal terms.

Action: any legal proceeding in which one party (or parties) brings a lawsuit against another.

Allegation: a claim or assertion that someone has done something wrong or illegal that hasn’t yet been proven.

Appeal: a legal proceeding in which a higher court is asked to reverse the decision of a trial court after a final judgment or another legal ruling has been made. No new evidence is admitted during an appeal.

Acquittal: the judgment that a person is not guilty of a crime they’ve been charged with.

Bar: a term used to refer to all attorneys collectively. The word comes from the railing that separates the spectator area of the courtroom from the area where proceedings are taking place. 

Bench: a general term used to refer to a judge or group of judges. The word can also be used to refer to the wide, raised desk in the courtroom where the judge or panel of judges sit.

Civil law: the part of the law that deals with offenses against an individual or other private entity, like a corporation. This includes cases like breaches of contract, libel/slander, property damage, and negligence. 

Criminal law: the part of the law that deals with offenses against the public, society, or the state, even if the initial offense was against an individual. This includes cases like murder, rape, robbery, drunk driving, and arson.

Claim: a demand for money, property, or enforcement of a right provided by law. 

Complaint: the first document filed with the court by a person or entity starting legal proceedings against another.

Contract: a legal agreement between two or more people or entities that an action or service will be performed in return for some sort of benefit.

Count: each separate statement in the complaint that kicks off a lawsuit or each separate charge in a criminal action.

Deposition: the taking and recording of testimony from a witness under oath by attorneys in the presence of a court reporter before a trial.

Dismissal: the termination of criminal prosecution or a lawsuit. A case may be dismissed by a judge or the plaintiff in the event a case is settled.

Docket: a collective term for the cases on a court calendar.

Double jeopardy: placing someone on trial a second time for an offense for which they have previously been acquitted, even when new incriminating evidence has come to light. In the United States, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution specifically prohibits double jeopardy.

Due process: the fundamental principle of fairness in legal matters. All legal procedures and court practices must be carefully followed for each individual to prevent prejudice or unequal treatment. 

Evidence: any type of proof legally presented to a court. This can include documents, witness testimony, and the results of scientific testing/analysis.

Finding: the result of a judicial examination, investigation, or inquiry.

Hearsay: (short for hearsay evidence) evidence based on a statement(s) made to a witness by someone else who was not under oath.

Infraction: the breaking of an agreement, rule, or law.

Jury: a group of citizens (jurors) who hear a trial. In a criminal case, they decide the question of guilt or innocence. In a civil case, they determine the prevailing party (winner) and the amount to be paid in damages, if any. The most common number of jurors is 12 – dating back to as early as 1066 AD – but some states allow a smaller number (six or eight).

Lawsuit: also known as a “suit,” a general term for any legal action taken by one person or entity against another person or entity. This is where the phrase “to sue” comes from.

Minor: any person under legal age. Generally, the legal age is considered to be 18, but it can vary based on the activity involved, like alcohol consumption.

Motion: a formal request for an order or judgment.

Negligence: failure to exercise a reasonable level of care toward others or taking an action that a reasonable and/or prudent person would not.

Oath: the vow by a person before court proceedings to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, with the understanding that they may be prosecuted for perjury if they knowingly lie.

Objection: a protest, typically by an attorney, regarding the legal propriety of a question that has been asked of a witness by the opposing attorney.

Order: the direction or mandate of a judge or a court directing that something be done or that an act is prohibited.

Party: the participant(s) in a lawsuit or other legal proceedings. This includes:

  • Plaintiff: the person or entity filing a suit or bringing charges against another. In criminal proceedings, the plaintiff is typically the State and is represented by a prosecutor.
  • Defendant: the person or entity on the receiving end of a case. This is the person being sued in a civil case or the person being charged with a crime in a criminal case.
  • Petitioner: the plaintiff in certain types of civil cases
  • Respondent: the defendant in certain types of civil cases

“Party” can also be used to refer to people or entities involved in an agreement (“party to the contract), transaction (“both parties were satisfied with the outcome”), or accident (“neither party was at fault”). 

Perjury: the crime of knowingly lying while under oath. In Massachusetts, perjury is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. 

Precedent: the previous judgement of a higher court that establishes a legal standard for how lower courts should handle the same legal questioin in the future.

Statute of limitations: a law that sets the maximum period which one can wait before filing a legal action. The statute of limitations varies depending on the state and the type of case or claim.

Subpoena: (occasionally spelled “subpena”) a formal order from the court for a person to appear at a particular time/place to produce documents and/or testitfy.

Witness: a person who testifies under oath in a trial or deposition. Witnesses are typically called to present first-hand or expert evidence. This term can also refer to a person who observes the signing of a legal document like a will or a contract.

KJC Law Firm has over 125 years of combined experience litigating major personal injury cases. We have the resources to investigate your claim, hire the necessary experts, and get you the compensation you deserve. We understand the effects an injury or accident can have on you and your family, and we know the methods the insurance companies will try to use to blame you, even when it isn’t your fault. We’re here to help – schedule a free consultation with our team to start your journey to restitution.

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