Definitions

Mitigating Factors:

Information about a defendant or the circumstances of a crime that might tend to lessen the sentence or the crime with which the person is charged.

Motion:

a request asking a judge to issue a ruling or order on a legal matter.

Motion For a New Trial:

Request in which a losing party asserts that a trial was unfair due to legal errors that prejudiced its case.

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.

Named Plaintiffs:

The originators of a class action suit.

Negligence:

a failure to use the degree of care that a reasonable person would use under the same circumstances.

No-Fault Auto Insurance System:

Under a no-fault system it doesn't matter which driver made the mistake that caused an accident. Each individual recovers from his or her own insurance carrier, regardless of who caused the accident.

No-Fault Divorce:

a divorce in which it it doesn't matter who did what to whom that caused the marriage to break down; all that matters is that there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.

Non-Exempt Employees:

Workers who are entitled to overtime pay after working more than forty hours in a five day work week. Generally includes secretaries, factory workers, clerical workers and anyone paid by the hour.

Non-Exempt Property:

In a bankruptcy, the possessions of a person that can be sold.

Nonimmigrant Visa:

Visa granted to a foreigner who does not intend to stay in the U.S. permanently.

Notary Public:

a person authorized to witness the signing of documents.

Notice of Appeal:

The document a person must file with the trial court in order to pursue an appeal.

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.

Open Adoption:

An adoption in which the birth mother may retain some visitation privileges.

Own Recognizance:

Sometimes called personal recognizance. a person who promises to appear in court to answer criminal charges can sometimes be released from jail without having to pay bail. This person is said to be released on his or her own recognizance.

Parens Patriae:

Latin for "parent of his country." Used when the government acts on behalf of a child or mentally ill person. Refers to the "state" as the guardian of minors and incompetent people.

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.

Partition:

a court action to divide property. Typically taken when a property is jointly owned and a dispute arises about how to divide it.

Partnership:

An association of two or more people who agree to share in the profits and losses of a business venture.

Patent:

a document issued to an inventor by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Contains a detailed description of what the invention is and how to make or use it and provides rights against infringors.

Penalty Phase:

The second part of a bifurcated trial, in which the jury hears evidence and then votes on what penalty or damages to impose.

Pension Plan:

An employer's program for providing retirement income to eligible employees.

Peremptory Challenges:

Limited number of challenges each side in a trial can use to eliminate potential jurors without stating a reason. May not be used to keep members of a particular race or sex off the jury.

Perjury:

a crime in which a person knowingly makes a false statement while under oath in court. In some jurisdictions, making a false statement in a legal document can also be considered perjury.

Personal Guardian:

Person appointed to take custody of children and provide for their care and upbringing. Distinguished from property guardian.

Personal Recognizance:

Sometimes called own recognizance. a person who promises to appear in court to answer criminal charges can sometimes be released from jail without having to pay bail. This person is said to be released on his or her personal recognizance.

Personal Representative:

a person who manages the legal affairs of another, such as a power of attorney or executor.

Petit Jury:

The jurors empaneled to hear a civil or criminal trial. Distinguised from a grand jury.

Petition:

a written application to the court asking for specific action to be taken.

Petition For Probate:

The document that summarizes a will's provisions and names the heirs.

Petty offenses:

Minor crimes, such as traffic violations, which are generally punishable by a fine or short jail term.

Physical Custody:

In a divorce, one of two types of child custody. a parent who has physical custody lives most of the time with the child. Compare with legal custody.

Piercing The Corporate Veil:

a legal concept through which a corporation's shareholders, who generally are shielded from liability for the corporation's activities, can be held responsible for certain actions.

Plaintiff:

The person who initiates a lawsuit.

Plea Bargain:

An negotiated agreement between the defense and the prosecution in a criminal case. Typically the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a specified charge in exchange for an oral promise of a lower sentence.

Pleadings:

In a civil case, the allegations by each party of their claims and defenses.

Power of Attorney:

The authority to act legally for another person.

Pre-Sentencing Report:

a report prepared by a probation department for a judge to assist in sentencing. Typically contains information about prior convictions and arrests, work history and family details.

Pre-Trial Diversion:

Also known as adjournment in contemplation of dismissal or conditional dismissal. a program in which a defendant essentially is put on probation for a set period of time and his or her case does not go to trial during that time. If the defendant meets the conditions set by the court, then the charge will be dismissed.

Precedent:

a previously decided case that is considered binding in the court where it was issued and in all lower courts in the same jurisdiction.

Preliminary Hearing:

Legal proceeding used in some states in which a prosecutor presents evidence to a judge in an attempt to show that there is probable cause that a person committed a crime. If the judge is convinced probable cause exists to charge the person, then the prosecution proceeds to the next phase. If not, the charges are dropped.

Preponderance of The Evidence:

The level of proof required to prevail in most civil cases. The judge or jury must be persuaded that the facts are more probably one way (the plaintiff's way) than another (the defendant's).

Prima Facie:

Latin for "at first view." Refers to the minimum amount of evidence a plaintiff must have to avoid having a case dismissed. It is said that the plaintiff must make a prima facie case.

Privileged Communication:

Conversation that takes places within the context of a protected relationship, such as that between an attorney and client, a husband and wife, a priest and penitent, and a doctor and patient. The law often protects against forced disclosure of such conversations.

Pro Se:

(pronounced pro say) Latin phrase that means "for himself." a person who represents himself in court alone without the help of a lawyer is said to appear pro se.

Probable Cause:

a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime.

Probate:

The legal process in which a court oversees the distribution of property left in a will.

Probation:

The release into the community of a defendant who has been found guilty of a crime, typically under certain conditions, such as paying a fine, doing community service or attending a drug treatment program. Violation of the conditions can result in incarceration. In the employment context, probation refers to the trial period some new employees go through.

Promissory Note:

a written document in which a borrower agrees (promises) to pay back money to a lender according to specified terms.

Property Guardian:

Person appointed to oversee property left to a minor in a will. Distinguished from a personal guardian.

Prosecutor:

The government lawyer who investigates and tries criminal cases. Typically known as a district attorney, state's attorney, or United States attorney.

Protective Order:

In litigation, an order that prevents the disclosure of sensitive information except to certain individuals under certain conditions. In a domestic dispute, an order that prevents one party from approaching another, often within a specified distance.

Public Defender:

a lawyer who works for a state or local agency representing clients accused of a crime who cannot afford to pay.

Punitive Damages:

Money awarded to a victim that is intended to punish a defendant and stop the person or business from repeating the type of conduct that caused an injury. Also intended to deter others from similar conduct.

Quash:

To nullify, void or declare invalid.

Quid Pro Quo:

Latin phrase that means what for what or something for something. The concept of getting something of value in return for giving something of value. For a contract to be binding, it usually must involve the exchange of something of value.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment:

Where an employee is threatened with a demotion (or promised a promotion) in exchange for "sexual favors." It usually comes from a supervisor or other person in a position of authority.

Quitclaim Deed:

a deed that transfers the owner's interest to a buyer but does not guarantee that there are no other claims against the property.

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.

Real Property:

Land and all the things that are attached to it. Anything that is not real property is personal property and personal property is anything that isn't nailed down, dug into or built onto the land. a house is real property, but a dining room set is not.

Reasonable Care:

The level of care a typical person would use if faced with the same circumstances.

Reasonable Doubt:

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

Refugee:

a person who applies to enter the U.S. from outside the country, claiming an inability or unwillingness to return to (or remain in) the home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

Remand:

When an appellate court sends a case back to a lower court for further proceedings.

Replevin:

Repossession. Action taken by a creditor to seize assets of a debtor.

Res Ipsa Loquitur:

a Latin phrase, that means "the thing speaks for itself." Refers to situations when it's assumed that a person's injury was caused by the negligent action of another party because the accident was the sort that wouldn't occur unless someone was negligent.

Residuary Estate:

Also known as residue of the estate. Portion of the estate left after bequests of specific items of property are made. Often the largest portion.

Residuary Legatee:

The person or persons named in a will to receive any residue left in an estate after the bequests of specific items are made.

Retainer:

Refers to the up front payment a client gives a lawyer to accept a case. The client is paying to "retain" the lawyer's services.

Retaining Lien:

Gives a lawyer the right to hold on to your money or property (such as a deed) until you pay the bill.

Revocable Living Trust:

a trust created during the maker's lifetime that can be changed. Allows the creator to pass assets on to chosen beneficiaries without going through probate.

Right Against Self-Incrimination:

Granted by the Fifth Amendment. Allows a person to refuse to answer questions that would subject him or her to accusation of a criminal act.

Right of Eminent Domain:

The government's right to acquire private property for public use.

Right of Survivorship:

In a joint-tenancy, the property automatically goes to the co-owners if one of the co-owners dies. a co-owner in a joint tenancy cannot give away his or her share of the property.

Security Agreement:

a contract between a lender and borrower that states that the lender can repossess the property a person has offered as collateral if the loan is not paid as agreed.

Self-Proving Will:

a will accompanied by a sworn statement from witnesses and signed before a notary public. Many states accept such wills in order to avoid the cumbersome process of requiring an executor to track down the witnesses.

Separation Agreement:

In a marital breakup, a document that outlines the terms of the couple's separation.

Service of Process:

The act of notifying the other parties that an action has begun and informing them of the steps they should take in order to respond.

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.

Shareholder:

An owner or investor in a corporation.

Single Life Annuity:

a form of pension plan payment in which the retired person receives a monthly check from the time of retirement until death.

Slander:

Defamatory (false and injurious) oral statements or gestures.

Sole Proprietorship:

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.

Spendthrift Trust:

a trust designed to keep money out of the hands of creditors. Often established to protect someone who is incapable of managing his or her financial affairs.

Spousal Right:

The entitlement of one spouse to inherit property from the other spouse. The right varies from state to state.

Spousal Support:

See alimony.

Standard of Care:

The degree of care a reasonable person would take to prevent an injury to another.

Standing:

The legal right to initiate a lawsuit. To do so, a person must be sufficiently affected by the matter at hand, and there must be a case or controversy that can be resolved by legal action.

Stare Decisis:

Latin for "to stand by that which is decided." Refers to the principle of adhering to precedent when deciding a case.

Stationhouse Bail:

Bail that some defendants accused of misdemeanors may be allowed to pay at the police station. This allows them to be released prior to appearing before a judge.

Statutes of Fraud:

Laws in most states to protect against false claims for payment from contracts that were not agreed upon. The specific laws vary from state to state, but most require that certain contracts be in writing.

Statutes of Limitations:

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

Strict Liability:

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.

Sublet:

When a party agrees to rent a space from the main tenant for a portion of the time remaining on the lease.

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