IMPORTANT LEGAL TERMS

Acquittal:

A legal determination that a person who has been charged with a crime is innocent.

Adjudicate:

To decide judicially in court.

Appeal:

A request for a higher court to review a decision made by a lower court.

Arraignment:

When the accused is brought before the court to hear the charges against him or her. They plead guilty or not guilty at this time.

Bail:

Security (usually money) to ensure that the accused person appears at trial.

Bench trial:

A trial without a jury, in which the judge serves as the fact-finder.

Brief:

A written statement submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding that explains one side's legal and factual arguments.

The burden of proof:

The duty to prove disputed facts. In civil cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt.

Business bankruptcy:

A bankruptcy case in which the debtor is a business or an individual involved in business and the debts are for business purposes.

Conviction:

The result of a criminal trial in which a person is found guilty.

Capital offense:

A crime is punishable by death.

Casefile:

A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.

Case law:

The law as established in previous court decisions. A synonym for legal precedent. Akin to common law, which springs from tradition and judicial decisions.

Caseload:

The number of cases handled by a judge or a court.

Cause of action:

A legal claim.

Chambers:

The offices of a judge and his or her staff.

Common law:

The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States, which relies on the articulation of legal principles in a historical succession of judicial decisions. Common law principles can be changed by legislation.

Community service:

A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to work – without pay – for a civic or non-profit organization.

Complaint:

A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant.

Concurrent sentence:

Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of five years behind bars.

Confirmation:

Approval of a plan of reorganization by a bankruptcy judge.

Consecutive sentence:

Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served consecutively, result in a maximum of 13 years behind bars.

Consumer bankruptcy:

A bankruptcy case filed to reduce or eliminate debts that are primarily consumer debts.

Consumer debts:

Debts incurred for personal, as opposed to business, needs.

Contingent claim:

A claim that may be owed by the debtor under certain circumstances, e.g., where the debtor is a co-signer on another person's loan and that person fails to pay.

Contract:

An agreement between two or more people that creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.

Conviction:

A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Counsel:

Legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a case.

Count:

An allegation in an indictment or information, charging a defendant with a crime. An indictment or information may contain allegations that the defendant committed more than one crime. Each allegation is referred to as a count.

Court:

Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs."

Cross-examination:

The questioning of a witness by the lawyer for the opposing side.

De facto:

Latin, meaning "in fact" or "actually." Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.

De jure:

Latin, meaning "in law." Something that exists by operation of law.

De novo:

Latin, meaning "anew." A trial de novo is a completely new trial. Appellate review de novo implies no deference to the trial judge's ruling.

Debtor:

A person who has filed a petition for relief under the Bankruptcy Code.

Debtor's plan:

A debtor's detailed description of how the debtor proposes to pay creditors' claims over a fixed period of time.

Declaratory judgment:

A judge's statement about someone's rights. For example, a plaintiff may seek a declaratory judgment that a particular statute, as written, violates some constitutional right.

Default judgment:

A judgment awarding a plaintiff the relief sought in the complaint because the defendant has failed to appear in court or otherwise respond to the complaint.

Defendant:

An individual (or business) against whom a lawsuit is filed.

Deposition:

An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in the trial. See discovery.

Direct-examination:

The first questioning in a trial of a witness by the lawyer who called that witness.

Docket:

A written list of all important acts done in court with regard to an individual case from the beginning to end.

Equity:

The value of a debtor's interest in property that remains after liens and other creditors' interests are considered.

Evidence:

Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case in favor of one side or the other.

Ex parte:

A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.

Exclusionary rule:

The doctrine that says evidence obtained in violation of a criminal defendant's constitutional or statutory rights is not admissible at trial.

Exculpatory evidence:

Evidence indicating that a defendant did not commit the crime.

Executory contracts:

Contracts or leases under which both parties to the agreement have duties remaining to be performed. If a contract or lease is executory, a debtor may assume it (keep the contract) or reject it (terminate the contract).

Exempt assets:

Property that a debtor is allowed to retain, free from the claims of creditors who do not have liens on the property.

Felony:

A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.

File:

To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of the court to enter into the files or records of a case.

Fraudulent transfer:

A transfer of a debtor's property made with the intent to defraud or for which the debtor receives less than the transferred property's value.

Hearing:

A court proceeding before or after the trial of a lawsuit.

Impeachment:

1. The process of calling a witness's testimony into doubt. For example, if the attorney can show that the witness may have fabricated portions of his testimony, the witness is said to be "impeached;" 2. The constitutional process whereby the House of Representatives may "impeach" (accuse of misconduct) high officers of the federal government, who are then tried by the Senate.

In-camera:

Latin, meaning in a judge's chambers. Often means outside the presence of a jury and the public. In private.

In forma pauperis:

"In the manner of a pauper." Permission given by the court to a person to file a case without payment of the required court fees because the person cannot pay them.

Inculpatory evidence:

Evidence indicating that a defendant did commit the crime.

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; it is used primarily for felonies. See also information.

Information:

A formal accusation by a government attorney that the defendant committed a misdemeanor. See also indictment.

Injunction:

A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.

Indictment:

An accusation of a crime, made against a person by a grand jury upon the request of a prosecutor.

Information:

An accusation of a crime, made against a person by the prosecutor.

Jurisdiction:

The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.

Jurisprudence:

The study of law and the structure of the legal system

Jury:

The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact. See also the grand jury.

Judgment:

The decision of a court of law.

Mistrial:

A trial that becomes invalid, is essentially canceled, because of a mistake in the procedure.

Motion:

How a lawyer asks the judge to make a decision.

Oath:

A declaration of a statement's truth, which renders one willfully asserting an untrue statement punishable for perjury.

Objection:

The opposing side finds fault with the question being asked the witness.

Overruled:

The judge, following an objection, decides the questions may continue.

Parole:

Conditional release from prison before the end of a sentence.

Perjury:

A deliberate lie said under oath.

Plaintiff v Defendant:

This is the way a case is always set up in writing. The name of the person or organization filing a lawsuit goes first; the name of the person or organization being charged goes last. The “v” is an abbreviation for the word “versus.”

Plead:

To answer an allegation.

Proceeding:

Any hearing or court appearance related to the adjudication of a case.

Remand:

To send a case back to the court from which it came for further proceedings.

Reverse:

To set aside a judgment on appeal or proceedings in error.

Sustained:

The judge, following an objection, agrees that the line of questioning should not continue.

Verdict:

A verdict of guilty or not guilty is handed down by the jury.

Sentence:

The punishment was given to a person who has been convicted of a crime.

Warrant:

A written order from a judge or magistrate that allows the police to arrest a person or to conduct a search.

Witness:

A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

Writ:

A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.

Writ of certiorari:

An order issued by the U.S. Supreme Court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case which it will hear on appeal.

Your Honor:

The way a judge is addressed in a courtroom.

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