Legalese Translator (Glossary)

Glossary of Legal Terms in the United States

Here are some definitions and explanations of common legal terms, symbols, and abbreviations.

For help interpreting a contract, see our Glossary of Contract Terms.

You can also read more about Legal Basics.

Administrative Code: An administrative code usually refers to local laws. In some cities, the administrative code is the collection of laws that apply to the citizens and other individuals within the city (e.g. New York Administrative Code). In other cities (e.g. Los Angeles), the administrative code is the collection of rules about how local government operates, while the Municipal Code (see below) refers to the more substantive local laws for everyone.

Affidavit: An affidavit is a written statement (sometimes a form) in which you declare certain facts to be true, such as “I live at 123 Main Street and I have known this person for 10 years” etc. OathThe statement is made either “under oath” where a notary or other official asks you to swear or affirm that you are telling the truth, or the affidavit itself simply says you declare the facts to be true “under penalty of perjury.”

Agent for service of process: Corporations and LLCs are generally required to designate an agent for service of process, which is the individual or company responsible for receiving the papers for a lawsuit. See our Guide to Business Law.

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Agency: Usually refers to an arm or sub-branch of the executive branch of government which carries out and enforces certain laws. There are federal, state and local agencies, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Coastal Commission, and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, respectively. See our Guide to Legal Basics.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): Ways to resolve a dispute outside litigation and the court system. See more at our Guide to Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution

Amicus brief: Also called amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief, this is when a person or organization not directly involved in a lawsuit submits a brief (document) that provides information and arguments to the court.

Acquittal: A judgment that a criminal defendant has not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Appeal: A request for a higher court to review and potentially overturn a lower court’s decision. See our Guide to Legal Basics.

Arbitration: a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that provides a binding decision outside the courts. See more at our Guide to Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Arraignment: A proceeding where an accused individual is informed of criminal charges and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Binding: Creating a legally enforceable obligation or agreement.

Cause of Action: A cause of action is a claim that someone violated a particular law. For example, if you have a contract with someone and they did not fulfill their obligations under the contract, you may have a cause of action for breach of contract. You could then bring a lawsuit based on that cause of action, as well as other potential causes of action, such as misrepresentation. You can sue for multiple causes of action at once.

Cease and Desist: This is generally a letter or notice sent to someone demanding that they stop doing something. It’s generally used in the context of intellectual property. For example, if a person is infringing on your copyright rights, you may want to send them a cease and desist letter to demand that they stop using your copyrighted work.

Civil case/ civil litigation: This generally refers to cases brought under civil law as opposed to criminal law. See our Guide to Civil vs Criminal Law.

Class Action: A class action is a lawsuit brought on behalf of multiple people (often hundreds or thousands) with similar claims against the same defendants (usually a company). It is an easier way to pursue everyone’s rights versus if each person had to sue individually. See more at our Guide to Class Actions.

Clause: A part of a contract or law that generally refers to a specific requirement. It can consist of a few words or a few sentences.

Code: A code is a collection of current laws created by legislation in a particular location, including city, state or the country. For example, the laws passed by Congress and signed by the President are called the “United States Code,” sometimes simply “U.S.C.” The “New York Consolidated Laws” is the code of laws passed by the New York state legislature and signed by the governor. Local laws passed by a city or county are found in the local codes, sometimes called “municipal codes” or “administrative codes” or “code of ordinances.” Sometimes people casually say “the code” to refer to a specific body of law within a municipal or state code. For example, the Los Angeles Building Code is the collection of laws about building safety within the Los Angeles City Municipal Code. And often when someone says something is or isn’t “up to code,” it means it does or doesn’t comply with the Building Code. See our Guide to Legal Basics.

Common law: The body of laws that are created by judges in the decisions they make in cases.

The Constitution of the United States of America

Constitution: This is generally a document which sets out what the government can and can’t do, how it functions, and what basic rights must be upheld. When people talk about the “Constitution” they are usually referring to the U.S. Constitution. But each state also has its own constitution. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the United States, and no other laws nor government official may contradict it.

Contempt: When a court finds someone “in contempt of court,” this generally means the person is disobeying the judge or a court order. The judge can then have the person arrested and put in jail.

Copyright: A form of intellectual property generally applied to creative work, which grants the owner certain rights.

Cross-examination: Questioning of a witness by the opposing party in a trial.

Custody: In the criminal law context, custody refers to when a suspect is detained by law enforcement. In the family law context, it refers to the legal right and responsibility for the care, upbringing, and decision-making regarding a child’s welfare.

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Damages: In the legal system, “damages” refers to two things: (1) the harm a person has been caused by another, which may include monetary, physical, emotional or other types; and (2) the amount of money you claim you are owed due to the harms suffered.

 

Defamation: Defamation is illegal harm to one’s reputation.

Defendant: In a lawsuit or criminal proceeding, this is the person or entity being sued or prosecuted.

Deposition: A deposition is similar to testifying in court, except that it is done outside court, such as in a law office.

Direct examination: Questioning of a witness by the party who called them to testify.

Discovery: The process of gathering evidence and information before a trial.

Domicile: A person’s legally defined residency, usually where you live for more than 6 months of the year.

Due Process: The requirement that the government must respect the legal rights of all people. In particular, the government must uphold the due process of law and follow the proper procedures when enforcing the law against an individual, or when otherwise taking an action that could deprive a person of “life, liberty, or property.” This comes from the U.S. Constitution, 5th and 14th Amendments. Related to the concept of Rule of Law.

Enjoin: The verb form of injunction. A court may issue an injunction to enjoin (prohibit) someone from doing something.

Execute (an agreement): To execute an agreement or contract is simply to sign it.

Executive Order: An executive order is an order by a president or governor to his or her administration (government agencies) regarding the way they are conducting their operations.

Felony: Crimes are generally classified as either Man behind jail barsa misdemeanor (less serious crime) or felony (more serious crime). Felonies involve a punishment of 1 year or more of imprisonment.

Grand jury: While a standard jury decides on a defendant’s guilt or innocence, a grand jury decides whether there is sufficient evidence to bring charges against someone. For most crimes, the district attorney will bring charges on their own. However, for serious crimes, the federal government and many states require charges to be brought by a grand jury instead.

Habeas Corpus: A legal action that requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court.

Infraction: This is a classification of a law that is considered a “non crime” and less serious than either a felony or misdemeanor. For example, some states consider possession of small amounts of marijuana to be simply an infraction.

Injunction: This is when a court orders someone to do or to refrain from doing something.

Intellectual Property: Rights to certain intangible assets like creative work (copyright), business branding (trademark), and patents. See our Guide to Intellectual Property.

Interrogatory: A written question posed by one party in a lawsuit to another party, which must be answered under oath.

Judgment: A judgment in a case is the final decision, order, or opinion by the court on who wins or loses.

Jurisdiction: The concept of the government having power over a certain geographic area or even a particular person, for the purpose of enforcing or applying the law, or issuing a court judgment. See What City Am I In?

Jury: A group of citizens who determine the verdict after a trial.

Jury Nullification: The controversial idea that a juror ultimately can ignore the law and decide how they want a case to be resolved based on what they think is right.

Legislation: Laws passed by an elected body of legislators, including Congress, and state legislatures. See our Guide to Legal Basics.

Liability: When a person is held liable, this means they are being held to account for their actions (or inaction). For example, if you injure another person (whether intentionally or not), you could be held liable for the injury. You would then be liable to pay money damages to the person harmed.

Libel: Libel is a written form of defamation.

Lien: A legal claim or right to someone else’s property as security for a debt or obligation. For example, if a person owns real estate, and owes money to the IRS, the IRS can place a lien on the real estate so that if the property is sold, the IRS would get its portion of the proceeds.

Litigation: The process of a lawsuit or legal action in court.

Mediation: A form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that provides a non-binding process for resolving disputes outside the courts. See our Guide to Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Misdemeanor: Crimes are generally classified as either a misdemeanor (less serious crime) or felony (more serious crime). Misdemeanors generally involve a punishment of less than 1 year of imprisonment.

Motion: A formal request made to a court for a specific ruling or action.

Municipality: A municipality or “municipal corporation” is generally a city that has the power to make laws and function as its own local government, such as Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Chicago, etc. See What City Am I In?

Negligence: Negligence occurs when someone fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm or injury to another person. For example, a driver who causes an accident due to distracted driving may be liable for negligence. See our Guide to Negligence Law.

Notarize: To have a document notarized means to get a “notary public” to sign and (usually) stamp the document, acknowledging that they have witnessed the document being “executed” (signed) by the person or parties listed on the document. Often this involves checking identification of the individuals executing (signing) the document.

Ordinance: An ordinance is a local law enacted by a local government, such as a city or county. See our Guide to Legal Basics.

Parole: The conditional release of a prisoner before the completion of their sentence, subject to certain restrictions.

Perjury: Perjury is the legal term for telling a lie while under oath. Under oath generally means either testifying in court, or in a deposition.

Plaintiff: This is a person who feels she/he has been harmed in some way and brings a lawsuit against the person(s) who allegedly caused the harm.

Pleading: Formal written statements filed by the parties in a lawsuit outlining their claims and defenses.

Precedent: A legal principle established by a court in previous cases that guides future decisions.

Pro Bono: Legal services provided voluntarily and without charge to those who cannot afford representation.

Probate: The legal process of administering a deceased person’s estate.

Probation: A period of supervision imposed by a court instead of incarceration.

Regulation: This usually refers to a law enacted by an executive agency, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the California Coastal Commission. Rules and regulations elaborate on law passed by the legislature. But sometimes it actually refers to laws passed by the legislature itself when they regulate or seek to modify behavior of individuals or organizations. See our Guide to Legal Basics.

Rule: Mostly interchangeable with “Regulation” (see above).

Settlement: A settlement is when the parties in a lawsuit (or potential lawsuit) agree to settle, that is, to no longer pursue their legal claims, usually in exchange for a monetary amount or some other concession. Often used for class actions.

Slander: Slander is the verbal form of defamation.

Standing: Standing describes whether someone is eligible to take a certain case to court. In general, standing requires that a person have been directly harmed in some way. A person who has little to no connection to a case would not be able to take that case to court. For example, if you simply don’t like a particular law, but it has no effect on you, you would generally not be able to challenge it in court.

Statute: A statute is what most people think of as a “law.” It is legislation passed by an elected body, such as Congress. (Note: Laws other than statutes include court decisions and rules & regulations.) See our Guide to Legal Basics.

Photo by William Warby, CC 2.0

Photo by William Warby, CC 2.0

Statute of Limitations: The time limit for how long after a person’s supposed violation of a law that the law can be enforced against that person. For example, if the statute of limitations on a crime is 5 years, then the government has 5 years to charge you with that crime, after which it can no longer take action against you (with some exceptions). Or if a person has violated a civil law causing you harm, and the law has a statute of limitations of 5 years, you have 5 years to sue that person. Most laws have an applicable statute of limitations.

Subpoena: A document compelling a person to testify on a particular issue, or to give over certain evidence.

Summary Judgment: This is when a court issues a final ruling in case before it gets to a trial.

Summons: A legal document that notifies a defendant of a lawsuit and orders them to appear in court.

Tort: A tort is a wrongful act or an infringement of a right that causes harm or injury to another individual or entity, for which the injured party can seek compensation through a civil lawsuit. Common torts are negligence or defective products.

Trademark: A form of intellectual property generally applied to business names and branding, which grants the owner certain rights.

Trust: A legal arrangement where one party (the trustee) holds and manages assets for the benefit of another (the beneficiary).

Unconstitutional: When a court declares that a law or government action violates the Constitution, it is said to be unconstitutional.

Verdict: The decision or finding of a jury or judge in a trial.

Venue: The geographical location where a legal case is heard or tried.

Warrant: A police officer or other law enforcement usually needs to get a “warrant” in order to search you or your property, take your property, or to arrest you. This is usually required under the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but there are many exceptions. An officer obtains a warrant from a judge by convincing the judge that the officer will likely find evidence of a specific crime in searching you, or that you have indeed committed a crime. See our Guide to Police Conduct for more. Also note that the word may also refer to warranting something in a contract.

Zoning: Zoning refers to local laws created by cities and counties to determine how particular areas of land can be used (aka “land use”). For example, the city may decide that certain areas are for residential uses, or commercial uses, or industrial uses, etc.

Symbols & Abbreviations

ADR = alternative dispute resolution (see above)

§ or Sec. = section (as in, section of code)

U.S.C. or USC = usually refers to the United States Code, which are the currently effective laws passed by Congress

© = the C in a circle symbol is used to give notice to others about copyright rights in a particular work

TM = trademark, the letters TM after a word, phrase, or logo usually signifies a claim to trademark rights which is NOT registered, but is used to claim “common law” trademark rights

® = The R in a circle symbol is used to notify others of a trademark registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office

Esq. = this usually signifies that someone is a licensed Attorney, and is used as “Jane Doe, Esq.”

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