Legalese: language with an overabundance of legal terminology or jargon.
This is our list of commonly-used legal terms that might be considered the “secret handshake” of the legal profession. Words in italics are included elsewhere in the list.
This page will be a perpetual work in progress. Please let us know if there’s a word or legal term you’d like us to add to this list. If you tell us a particular terms needs more in-depth explanation, we’ll create a post for it, too.
- Defendant: the party against whom a plaintiff brings a claim or lawsuit; sometimes also referred to as “respondent.”
- Evidence: something that proves or disproves, or tends to prove or disprove, the existence or truthfulness of a fact alleged in a pleading. Evidence can be oral testimony, a document, or an object such as “the smoking gun.” Evidence also refers collectively to all of the things submitted in court, and to the law that governs the admissibility and use of these things during court proceedings. Also see spoliation.
- Motion: a formal request made by a party to a court for the judge to enter a specified order or judgment. Requests can be either written or oral; oral motions are sometimes referred to as ore tenus motions. Motions are different from pleadings.
- Ore tenus: (ˈōr-ē-ˈtē-nəs, ˈōr-ā-ˈte-nu̇s) This is a Latin adjective or adverb meaning, “by mouth,” and is used to describe a motion that is made orally to a judge in open court.
- Party: someone who takes part in a lawsuit or transaction such as a contract; could be either a natural person or a business entity such as a corporation or partnership.
- Piggy-backing: This is an informal term for adding new motions for the court to hear during a time that has already been set to hear another motion. Many judges limit or prohibit piggy-backing, so you should always check your judge’s pretrial order or other instructions before you attempt such a feat.
- Plaintiff: the party who brings a claim or lawsuit against another person in court; sometimes also referred to as “complainant” or “petitioner.”
- Pleading: a formal document in which a party to a legal proceeding (esp. a civil lawsuit) states claims (see plaintiff) or responds to claims and asserts defenses (see defendant). Pleading also can refer to that initial stage of a legal proceeding during which claims and defenses are refined and narrowed.
- Procedural Law: the rules that govern the steps or methods that parties must follow to have their legal rights, obligations, and duties enforced by a court. For example, procedural rules dictate how much time parties have to respond to complaints filed against them. Procedural law is one of the two main categories of law, the other being substantive law.
- Spoliation: This term most frequently means the intentional destruction of evidence, among other definitions. Click here for a post with more in-depth discussion.
- Substantive Law: creates, defines and regulates the rights, obligations and duties of parties. Examples of areas of substantive law include contract law, tort law, family law, and criminal law. Substantive law is one of the two main categories of law, the other being procedural law.
- Subpoena: a writ issued by a court (or other authoritative body) commanding a person to appear before the court (or other tribunal). Subpoena is Latin for “under penalty,” and indeed there may be penalties if the person fails to comply. Two examples of subpoenas are witness subpoenas (ordering a witness to appear and give testimony at a trial, at a hearing, or at a deposition) and “subpoenas duces tecum” (ordering a witness to appear and bring specified documents or records). Also see Summons. The different usages of the terms summons and subpoena can be found in the applicable procedural rules (see Procedural Law), although summons is used most frequently at the outset of a legal proceeding.
- Summons: a writ commencing a plaintiff’s action and requiring the defendant to appear and respond. Summons also refers to a notice requiring someone to appear in court as a juror, and is sometimes used to refer to a writ commanding a person to appear in court as a witness. Also see Subpoena. The different usages of the terms summons and subpoena can be found in the applicable procedural rules (see Procedural Law), although summons is used most frequently at the outset of a legal proceeding.
- Writ: a written command issued by a court requiring a person, party, or another court either to take some specified action or to cease taking some specified action. There are many types of writs; on this list, see Subpoena and Summons.