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Glossary of Legal Terms
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ACTUAL MALICE: To win a defamation suit, public officials or prominent people, such as political candidates or movie stars, must prove that the offender made a false statement with actual malice. This means the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with serious doubts about whether it was true.

AFFIDAVIT: A written statement made under oath.

Also called maintenance or spousal support. In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage.

ANNULMENT: A legal decree that states that a marriage was never valid. Has the legal effect of wiping out a marriage as though it never existed.

ARBITRATION: A method of alternative dispute resolution in which the disputing parties agree to abide by the decision of an arbitrator.

ARRAIGNMENT: The initial appearance before a judge in a criminal case. At an arraignment, the charges against the defendant are read, a lawyer is appointed if the defendant cannot afford one, and the defendant's plea is entered.

ASSUMPTION OF RISK: A defense raised in personal injury lawsuits. Asserts that the plaintiff knew that a particular activity was dangerous and thus bears all responsibility for any injury that resulted.

ASYLUM SEEKER: A foreigner, already in the U.S. or at the border, who seeks refuge, claiming an inability or unwillingness to return to the home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

AT-WILL EMPLOYMENT: An employment relationship where the employer has the right to fire a worker for any cause at any time--usually without any notice.

BAD FAITH: Dishonesty or fraud in a transaction, such as entering into an agreement with no intention of ever living up to its terms, or knowingly misrepresenting the quality of something that is being bought or sold.

BAIL: The money a defendant pays as a guarantee that he or she will show up in court at a later date. For most serious crimes, a judge sets bail during the arraignment.

BANKRUPTCY: Insolvency; a process governed by federal law to help when people cannot or will not pay their debts.

BENCH TRIAL: Also called court trial. A trial held before a judge and without a jury.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT: The highest level of proof required to win a case. Necessary to get a guilty verdict in criminal cases.

BIFURCATION: Splitting a trial into two parts: a liability phase and a penalty phase. In some cases, a new jury may be empanelled to deliberate for the penalty phase.

BOND: A document with which one party promises to pay another within a specified amount of time. Bonds are used for many things, including borrowing money or guaranteeing payment of money.

BRIEF: A written document that outlines a party's legal arguments in a case.

BURDEN OF PROOF: The duty of a party in a lawsuit to persuade the judge or the jury that enough facts exist to prove the allegations of the case. Different levels of proof are required depending on the type of case.

CHAPTER 7 BANKRUPTCY: A type of bankruptcy in which a person's assets are liquidated (collected and sold) and the proceeds are distributed to the creditors.

CHAPTER 13 BANKRUPTCY: A type of bankruptcy in which a person keeps his assets and pays creditors according to an approved plan.

CHALLENGE FOR CAUSE: Ask that a potential juror be rejected if it is revealed that for some reason he or she is unable or unwilling to set aside preconceptions and pay attention only to the evidence.

CHANGE OF VENUE: A change in the location of a trial, usually granted to avoid prejudice against one of the parties.

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE: Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but doesn't directly prove it. If a man accused of embezzling money from his company had made several big-ticket purchases in cash around the time of the alleged embezzlement, that would be circumstantial evidence that he had stolen the money.

CLASS ACTION SUIT: A lawsuit in which one or more parties file a complaint on behalf of themselves and all other people who are "similarly situated" (suffering from the same problem). Often used when a large number of people have comparable claims.

CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE: The level of proof sometimes required in a civil case for the plaintiff to prevail. Is more than a preponderance of the evidence but less than beyond a reasonable doubt.

CLOSING: In a real estate transaction, this is the final exchange in which the deed is delivered to the buyer, the title is transferred, and the agreed-on costs are paid.

COMMON-LAW MARRIAGE: In some states, a couple is considered married if they meet certain requirements, such as living together as husband and wife for a specific length of time. Such a couple has all the rights and obligations of a traditionally married couple.

DEFAMATION: The publication of a statement that injures a person's reputation. Libel and slander are defamation.

DEFAULT JUDGMENT: A ruling entered against a defendant who fails to answer a summons in a lawsuit.

DEPOSITION: Part of the pre-trial discovery (fact-finding) process in which a witness testifies under oath. A deposition is held out of court with no judge present, but the answers often can be used as evidence in the trial.

DIRECT EVIDENCE: Evidence that stands on its own to prove an alleged fact, such as testimony of a witness who says she saw a defendant pointing a gun at a victim during a robbery.

DIRECT EXAMINATION: The initial questioning of a witness by the party that called the witness.

DIRECTED VERDICT: A judge's order to a jury to return a specified verdict, usually because one of the parties failed to prove its case.

DISMISSAL WITH PREJUDICE: When a case is dismissed for good reason and the plaintiff is barred from bringing an action on the same claim.

DISMISSAL WITHOUT PREJUDICE: When a case is dismissed but the plaintiff is allowed to bring a new suit on the same claim.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY: Being tried twice for the same offense.

DUE PROCESS: The idea that laws and legal proceedings must be fair. The Constitution guarantees that the government cannot take away a person's basic rights to "life, liberty or property, without due process of law." Courts have issued numerous rulings about what this means in particular cases.

FELONY: Serious crime punishable by incarceration for a year or more. Includes rape, murder, robbery, burglary, and arson.

GROSS NEGLIGENCE: Failure to use even the slightest amount of care in a way that shows recklessness or willful disregard for the safety of others.

HEARSAY: Secondhand information that a witness only heard about from someone else and did not see or hear himself. Hearsay is not admitted in court because it's not trustworthy, though there are many exceptions.

HUNG JURY: A jury that is unable to reach a verdict.

INDICTMENT: A formal accusation of a felony, issued by a grand jury after considering evidence presented by a prosecutor.

INFRACTIONS: Sometimes called violations. Minor offenses, often traffic tickets, which are punishable only by a fine.

INFRINGEMENT: Unauthorized use, typically of a patent or copyright.

JURY CHARGE: The judge's instructions to the jurors on the law that applies in a case and definitions of the relevant legal concepts. These instructions may be complex and are often pivotal in a jury's discussions.

JUST CAUSE: A legitimate reason. Often used in the employment context to refer to the reasons why someone was fired.

LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY: A business structure that is a hybrid of a partnership and a corporation. Its owners are shielded from personal liability and all profits and losses pass directly to the owners without taxation of the entity itself.

LIMITED PARTNER: One of two kinds of partners in a limited partnership. Is personally liable for the debts of the partnership only to the extent of his or her investment in it and has little to no voice in its management.

LIMITED PARTNERSHIP: A partnership with two kinds of partners: limited partners, who provide financial backing and have little role in management and no personal liability, and general partners, who are responsible for managing the entity and have unlimited personal liability for its debts.

MALPRACTICE: Improper or negligent behavior by a professional, such as a doctor or a lawyer. The failure of a professional to follow the accepted standards of practice of his or her profession.

MISDEMEANOR: Crime that is punishable by less than one year in jail, such as minor theft and simple assault that does not result in substantial bodily injury.

MOTION FOR DIRECTED VERDICT: A request made by the defendant in a civil case. Asserts that the plaintiff has raised no genuine issue to be tried and asks the judge to rule in favor of the defense. Typically made after the plaintiff is done presenting his or her case.

MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT: A request made by the defendant in a civil case. Asserts that the plaintiff has raised no genuine issue to be tried and asks the judge to rule in favor of the defense. Typically made before the trial.

MOTION TO DISMISS: In a civil case, a request to a judge by the defendant, asserting that even if all the allegations are true, the plaintiff is not entitled to any legal relief and thus the case should be dismissed.

MOTION TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCE: A request to a judge to keep out evidence at a trial or hearing, often made when a party believes the evidence was unlawfully obtained.

OFFICERS OF A CORPORATION: Those people with day-to-day responsibility for running the corporation, such as the chief executive, chief financial officer and treasurer.

PAROLE: A system for the supervised release of prisoners before their terms are over. Congress has abolished parole for people convicted of federal crimes, but most states still offer parole.

REASONABLE DOUBT: The level of certainty a juror must have to find a defendant guilty of a crime.

RE-CROSS EXAMINATION: Questioning a witness about matters brought up during re-direct examination.

RE-DIRECT EXAMINATION: Questioning a witness about matters brought up during cross examination.

SETTLEMENT: The resolution or compromise by the parties in a civil lawsuit.

SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT: In a civil lawsuit, the document that spells out the terms of an out-of-court compromise.

SLANDER: Defamatory (false and injurious) oral statements or gestures.


A form of business organization in which an individual is fully and personally liable for all the obligations (including debts) of the business, is entitled to all of its profits and exercises complete managerial control.

STATUTES OF LIMITATIONS: Laws setting deadlines for filing lawsuits within a certain time after events occur that are the source of a claim.


Liability even when there is no proof of negligence. Often applicable in product liability cases against manufacturers, who are legally responsible for injuries caused by defects in their products, even if they were not negligent.

SUBPOENA: An order compelling a person to appear to testify or produce documents.

SUMMATION: The closing argument in a trial.

SUMMONS: A legal document that notifies a party that a lawsuit has been initiated and states when and where the party must appear to answer the charges.

VERDICT: The formal decision issued by a jury on the issues of fact that were presented at trial.

VESTED RIGHT: An absolute right. When a retirement plan is fully vested, the employee has an absolute right to the entire amount of money in the account.

VICARIOUS LIABILITY: When one person is liable for the negligent actions of another person, even though the first person was not directly responsible for the injury. For instance, a parent sometimes can be vicariously liable for the harmful acts of a child and an employer sometimes can be vicariously liable for the acts of a worker.

VISITATION RIGHT: The right granted to a parent or other relative to visit a child on a specified basis. Usually occurs during a divorce proceeding.

WARRANT: An official order authorizing a specific act, such as an arrest or the search of someone's home.

WITNESS: Person who comes to court and swears under oath to give truthful evidence.

WORKER'S COMPENSATION: A benefit paid to an employee who suffers a work-related injury or illness.

WRIT: A judicial order.

WRONGFUL DISCHARGE: When an employee is fired for reasons that are not legitimate, typically either because they are unlawful or because they violate the terms of an employment contract.