Most legal terms are either derivatives of Latin words or are Latin words using the English pronunciations. Some frequently used legal terms are listed below. If your attorney or a member of his/her staff uses a term you are unfamiliar with, you may wish to either consult your dictionary or ask your attorney for an explanation of the term.

Affidavit: A written statement, signed by the person making the statement, and notarized by a notary public.

Appeal: When the initial court decision is unsatisfactory, the case can be brought before a “higher” court for review.

Arbitration/Mediation: A first step (which may or may not be utilized) before the court process. Arbitration is the process of choosing an independent person to hear the facts of a case and make a determination. Arbitration can be binding or nonbinding. Mediation is the process of choosing an independent person to hear the facts of a case and urge conciliation or concession on either or both sides. The result can later be tried in court if the parties are not satisfied with the result. This process can be much less expensive than a hearing in court.

Caption: A caption is the heading at the top of a pleading referencing the court, the case number, and the parties named in the lawsuit.

Complaint: A complaint is the initial document in a lawsuit, setting forth the complaint of the plaintiff. A complaint is generally accompanied by a summons. The complaint details the issues involved in the lawsuit. (NOTE: In dissolution of marriage (divorce) cases the initial document filed is referred to as a petition.)

Contingent Fee: Fees can be charged on either an hourly basis or on a “contingent fee” basis. A contingent fee means any monetary award or judgment received by the client as a result of the lawsuit is split between the attorney and his/her client. This is generally done on a percentage basis. Costs are deducted from the client’s amount of the judgment, after the total figure is split according to the percentage agreed upon. If no monetary award results from the lawsuit or the case is lost, the attorney receives no fee. However, be aware that costs are the responsibility of the client and are expected to be paid by the client. A contingent fee agreement should be in writing.

Default: If the summons and complaint are not answered in a timely manner, the defendant may be considered in default and judgment for the full amount requested in the complaint may enter against the defendant.

Defendant: A defendant is the person being sued by the plaintiff. Note: In dissolution of marriage (divorce) cases, the responsive patty is referred to as the respondent.

Deposition: An oral question and answer session, usually held in a law office. Questions are posed to a deponent (the one being asked the questions) while under oath, and in front of a court reporter. The court reporter then transcribes the deposition and the transcript becomes a part of the court file and may be used in court.

Discovery: Discovery is an all-encompassing term meaning to discover additional information or documents relating to the lawsuit. Discovery documents are Interrogatories, Requests for Production of Documents, and Requests for Admissions.

Docket: The process of filing a document with the court is called docketing. The court’s docket is the list of court cases assigned to each courtroom. Attorneys also keep a docket or calendar of upcoming hearings, meetings, trials, etc.

Executor/Executrix: Executor is a male person or entity appointed to administer the terms of a Will; Executrix is the female counterpart of executor. Also referred to as a Personal Representative.

Garnishment: When a judgment is obtained from the court, and. the debtor is unable or refuses to pay, a garnishment can be served. A bank for example, can be served with a garnishment in order to seize all the money in the debtor’s accounts. The bank is then required to turn over to the court any funds it has in the name of the debtor. The court then has the authority to direct the funds be paid to the person who garnished the account. A garnishment can also be served on the debtor’s employer who is obligated to pay to the court a specific percentage of the debtor’s wages.

Interrogatories: Interrogatories are written questions served on the opposing party. Interrogatories require answers within a specified timeframe, which is set out in the court rules.

Judgment:An official decision of the court concerning the resolution of the case, The judgment of the court can be an award of damages (money) to a party, or it can be an official determination on rights or claims of a party.

Judgment Debtor: The person against whom the judgment enters in a lawsuit.

Jurisdiction: The subject matter of a lawsuit determines which court will hear the matter. That court is said to have jurisdiction. For example, a district court can hear cases, which involve monetary claims over a certain dollar amount.

Lessee/Lessor: A Lessee rents property; also known as a tenant. A Lessor is the owner of rental property, also known as the landlord.

Litigation: Litigation refers to the lawsuit itself. To litigate means to engage in a lawsuit. A litigant is a participant in a lawsuit.

Mitigation: The reduction or abatement of a penalty or punishment imposed by law. To mitigate damages is to reduce them.

Notary Public: A person granted authority by the state who can administer oaths, attest, certify and acknowledge documents.

Plaintiff: A Plaintiff is the person initiating the lawsuit. In dissolution of marriage (divorce) cases, the person initiating the lawsuit is referred to as the Petitioner.

Pleading: A pleading is a legal document containing the caption and the legal requests or responses requested. A pleading typically is filed with the court.

Restraining Order: An order issued by the court forbidding a party from specific action as outlined in the restraining order. Disobeying a restraining order can be punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.

Request for Production of Documents: A Request for Production of documents is a pleading requesting that specified documents (or copies) be produced to the opposing attorney by a specific date.

Requests for Admission: Requests for Admission are statements set out in a pleading which require a yes or no response. Failure to respond to the statements by the date specified in the pleading are perceived by the court as an admission of the statements.

Rules of Procedure or Civil Procedure: The basic court rules which govern the conduct of a case which are established by state and federal laws.

Service of Process: Service of process is the phrase used when documents are personally delivered or served on a person or entity in a lawsuit. A process server is the person who delivers the documents and can be either a police officer or an independent agent hired by the attorney.

Subpoena: A pleading issued by the court or attorney which commands the appearance of an individual to testify at a date and time indicated in the subpoena. A subpoena duces tecum is a request for a person to appear and bring specific documents, which are stated in the subpoena.

Summons: A summons is a legal paper, which notifies the defendant that a lawsuit has been commenced naming him as a defendant. The summons also requires the defendant to appear in court or file an appropriate response with the court within a specified time stated in the summons.

Testator or Testatrix: Testator is a male person signing a document. Testatrix is the female counterpart of Testator.

Venue: Venue is the location of the court, which will preside over the matter at issue. For example, a case might be filed in the County where you reside.

Voir Dire: The term used for questions posed to potential jurors by attorneys in the courtroom. These questions help the attorneys determine whether to keep a potential juror on the jury panel.

With Prejudice: Generally used in settlement documents. This phrase means no action or claim may be filed relating to the cause being settled.

Without Prejudice: Also used in settlement agreements, this phrase means the right to bring a subsequent suit regarding the same claim or cause.


This information included is not intended to serve as a substitute for consultation with an attorney. Specific legal issues, concerns and conditions always require the advice of appropriate legal professionals.

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