Legal Definitions

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The following legal definitions are available for your reference. Please call the FBA office at (571) 481-9100, if the word you are looking for is not included. 


Abstract of title - A shortened history of the title to land.

Acceleration clause - A provision in a mortgage, note, etc., which allows a lender to demand monies due under the instrument when there has been a default such as nonpayment, etc.

Accessory - In criminal law, one who contributes to or aids in the commission of a crime.

Acquit - To certify the innocence of someone charged with a crime.

Adjudication - The formal giving or pronouncing of a judgment or decree.

Administrator - A person appointed by the court to administer.

Admission - Voluntary acknowledgements made by a party that certain facts are true.

Adverse possession - Acquiring title to land by possessing the land for a certain period of time and under certain conditions.

Affidavit - A written statement of facts sworn to as true by the person making it.

Affirmative defense - In a pleading, a matter constituting a defense.

Agent - Someone who acts for another.

Alimony - Allowances that one spouse pays the other for maintenance while they are separated or after they are divorced.

Allegation - Assertion made in a pleading that the party expects to prove.

Amicus Curiae - A person with a strong interest in the subject matter may petition the court for permission to file a brief.

Amortization - The payment of a debt by installments.

Annulment - When the court voids a marriage due to preexisting conditions that would have prevented a valid marriage from being entered into.

Answer - A pleading in which a defendant responds to the plaintiffís complaint.

Appeal - A procedure in which a party resorts to a superior court to review the decision of an inferior (lower) court.

Appellant - The party who appeals a decision to a higher court.

Appellate Court - A court having jurisdiction of appeal and review.

Appellee - The party against whom an appeal was taken.

Arraignment - Proceeding in which the accused is brought before the court to plead to a criminal charge.

Assault - An attempt to inflict injury upon another, when coupled with ability to inflict the injury.

Assumption of the risk - An affirmative defense in a personal injury case, meaning that a person cannot recover for an injury received when he/she voluntarily exposes himself to a known and appreciated danger.

Attachment - The act of taking property by some type of order to bring a person or property into legal custody.


Bail (verb) - To procure release on one charged with an offense.

Bailiff - A court officer who has charge of a court session.

Bankrupt - When an individual, under the Bankruptcy Act, is unable to pay debts as they become due.

Battery - The use of physical force against another.

Bench warrant - A court-issued warrant for the attachment or arrest of a person.

Bind over - To hold for trial or further inquiry.

Brief - A written document.

Burglary - While every state defines it differently, it is commonly defined as breaking into and entering a dwelling with the intent to commit a felony therein.


Caption - The heading of a pleading, motion, deposition, or other legal document which shows the name of the court, the names of the parties, docket or file number, title of the action, as well as other pertinent information.

Cause of Action - A combination of law and fact sufficient enough for someone to seek a remedy through a court.

Certiorari - (Latin: to be informed of) Writ issued by a superior to a lower court requiring the lower court to produce a certified record of proceedings for judicial review. The writ is often used as a means of gaining appellate review. In the United States Supreme Court, the writ is most frequently used as a way of selecting the cases that will be reviewed.

Change of Venue - The transfer of a lawsuit from one county to another county, or from one court to another court in the same county or district.

Charge to Jury - The final address by a judge to a jury instructing the jury as to the law relevant to a case and how the law must be applied. The charge is given immediately before the jury retires to deliberate on a verdict.

Chattel - An article of tangible personal property, as opposed to real property.

Circuit Court - A court that has jurisdiction over various counties or districts.

Circumstantial Evidence - Testimony, not based on actual personal knowledge or observation of the facts in controversy, which the court or jury may determine to be true from deductions.

Citation to Legal Authority - Reference to a statute, code, regulation, court decision, constitutional provision, or quotation from a body of law to support a statement of the law.

Civil Action - A lawsuit brought to enforce private rights; in general, any type of action except criminal proceedings.

Clerk of Courts - The officer who generally acts as the administrative agent of the court. Responsibilities include, but are not limited to, accepting filings, recording orders of court, and calculating sentences imposed in criminal matters.

Code - A collection of laws, rules, or regulations systematically arranged and enacted by legislative authority.

Codicil - A supplement or addition to a will that may explain, modify, add to, subtract from, qualify, alter, restrain, or revoke provisions in the existing will.

Collateral Estoppel Doctrine - Commonly referred to as issue preclusion. When a court renders a decision in a case based upon its disposition of certain issues, those same issues cannot be litigated again in another case in which a party to the previous case, who litigated or had the opportunity to litigate the decided issues, participated.

Common Law - The body of principles and rules based on judicial precedent rather than on legislative enactments.

Common-Law Marriage - Created by two people without a ceremony involving an agreement to enter into a marriage relationship, cohabitation, and the parties holding themselves out to the public as married.

Commutation - The change of a punishment to one that is less severe, such as the reduction of a criminal defendantís punishment from a death sentence to life imprisonment.

Comparative Negligence - Under this statute or doctrine, a plaintiffís recovery will be diminished by the percentage amount of negligence attributable to the plaintiff in causing his or her injuries. The term also refers to the allocation of percentages of negligence between multiple defendants.

Compensatory Damages - Awarded in a civil action as compensation, indemnity, or restitution to a plaintiff for losses or damages incurred as a result of the acts of another. The purpose of compensatory damages is to place the plaintiff in the position that he/she was in prior to the injury. Examples of compensatory damages are economic damages, such as lost wages and medical bills, and non-economic damages, such as pain, suffering, and disfigurement.

Complaint - The initial pleading filed by a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit. Also refers to the written document detailing criminal charges filed against a criminal defendant.

Condemnation - The legal process by which private property is appropriated for public use without the ownerís consent through the power of eminent domain, but for which the owner is paid just compensation by the public body for such appropriation.

Consent Decree - An agreement of parties to a lawsuit, based upon stipulated facts, which is sanctioned by the court.  

Consideration - Generally, something of value or a promise to forgo an existing liability provided in exchange for a personís entering into a contract.

Contempt of Court - An intentional act designed to hinder a courtís administration of justice. Direct contempt is committed in the immediate presence and view of the court. Constructive, or indirect, contempt is the failure or refusal to obey lawful court orders.

Contingent Fee - Attorneyís fee calculated as a percentage of the amount recovered by a client.

Continuance - A postponement granted by the court at the request of either or both parties, or by the court on its own motion.

Contract - An enforceable oral or written agreement, between two or more parties, which creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.

Contributory Negligence - The concept that a plaintiff, who sues a defendant on a basis of negligence, is not entitled to recover any damages if he/she committed an act of negligence that contributed to the injury suffered. See also Comparative Negligence.

Conversion - The improper use, possession, or destruction of anotherís personal property.

Copyright - An intangible right of ownership granted by statute to the author or originator of certain literary, musical, or other artistic productions.

Corpus Delicti - Objective proof that a crime has been committed; for example, the corpse of a murdered person or the charred remains of a house burned down.

Corroborating Evidence - Supplementary evidence tending to strengthen or confirm evidence previously introduced.

Counterclaim - Claim brought by the defendant in a lawsuit against the plaintiff. A counterclaim neither answers nor denies the plaintiffís claim, but rather asserts an independent claim against the plaintiff arising out of the same transaction or occurrence that gave rise to the plaintiffís original claim.

Court Reporter - A person who transcribes testimony during court proceedings, depositions, or other proceedings authorized by a court or rule of court.

Cross-claim - Claim brought by a defendant in a lawsuit against a co-defendant in the suit arising out of the same transaction or occurrence that gave rise to the plaintiffís original claim or of a counterclaim. It often refers to a claim that another defendant is liable to the plaintiff or is responsible to indemnify another defendant.

Cross-examination - The questioning of a witness in a legal proceeding by a party that has not called the witness as his/her witness.

Custodian - Generally, a person or financial institution with control of property or other assets. In bankruptcy law, a third party with authority to take charge of a debtorís assets for the benefit of all creditors.


Damages - Monetary compensation or indemnity recovered in the courts by any person who has suffered an injury or loss caused by an unlawful act, omission, or negligence of another person.

Debtor - In general, a person who is liable to pay a claim. In bankruptcy law, a person who voluntarily files a petition of bankruptcy or has such a petition filed against him/her.

De Facto - (Latin: in fact or actually) Used to describe a state of affairs or a set of circumstances that exist in reality, though perhaps not officially. A matter of conduct founded upon the conduct or practice of a person, organization, or government agency rather than upon the law.

De Jure - A state of affairs or condition where there has been complete compliance with all legal requirements.

De Minimus - Something that is so minimal or small that it does not justify relief from a court.

De Novo - Often refers to a new court proceeding, or a trial or hearing for the second time, which is held in the same manner as if it had not been previously heard and as if no decision had been previously rendered.

Decedent - An individual who has died.

Declaratory Judgment - A binding judicial determination of the rights of the parties in a lawsuit where there is doubt as to the partiesí legal rights or status.

Decree - A decision or order of the court. A final decree is one that fully and finally disposes of litigation whereas an interlocutory decree is a provisional or preliminary decree that does not fully and finally dispose of litigation.

Deed - A signed document or instrument used to convey title to real property from one individual or entity to another.

Defamation - The intentional publication of false, derogatory statements about another. Verbal statements constitute slander, while written statements constitute libel.

Defendant - The party against whom a lawsuit is filed.

Deposition - Testimony of a witness taken under oath in the presence of a court reporter, but not in a courtroom. May be used to discover evidence or to preserve testimony for later use in court.

Design Patent - Patent granted for the drawing or depiction, chiefly of an ornamental nature, of an original plan or conception to be used in manufacturing, or textile arts, or the fine arts.

Discrimination - Unfair treatment or denial of a privilege based on sex, age, race, nationality, religion, or being handicapped.

Devise - A gift of real property made in a will.

Direct Examination - The interrogation of a witness by the party on whose behalf the witness is called.

Directed Verdict - In a case in which the party with the burden of proof has failed to present a prima facie case for jury consideration, the trial judge may direct the jury to enter a verdict without allowing the jury to consider it, because, as a matter of law, there can be only one such verdict.

Disbarment - Action taken by a court revoking an attorneyís license to practice law.

Discovery - The process used by parties to court cases by which one party obtains information and facts known or possessed by the other party or by witnesses. Discovery includes, but is not limited to, interrogatories, requests for production of documents, depositions, and requests for admissions.

Dismissal with Prejudice - Final judgment against the plaintiff on a case that prohibits bringing an action on the same cause in the future. In contrast, dismissal without prejudice allows the plaintiff to sue again for the same cause.

Dissent - The disagreement of one or more judges of a court with the decision of the majority of the court. In written court opinions, it is referred to as a dissenting opinion.

Dissolution - The process by which a corporation, partnership, or other legal entity is legally terminated.

Docket - The court's formal record of a legal proceeding.

Domicile - The location of a personís permanent home, which is intended to be his or her permanent residence. A person may have several residences, but only may have one domicile.

Double Jeopardy - A prohibition in common law and constitutional law that prohibits an individual from being prosecuted or placed in jeopardy twice for the same crime.

Due Diligence - In reference to business acquisition or merger, investigation of the financial, physical, and legal condition of a company before the transaction is completed.

Due Process - In general, an individualís right to have notice of legal proceedings and a fair opportunity to be heard.

Duress - Any means, such as threats of bodily harm, used to force an individual to do something against his/her will.


Easement - The right for someone other than a property owner to use the property for a specific purpose, such as the right to maintain a public path through a farmerís field.

Embezzlement - The fraudulent misappropriation of money entrusted to another.

Eminent Domain - The power of a government body to appropriate private property for public use through condemnation proceedings in which the private property owner is paid fair compensation for the appropriation by the government.

En Banc - Refers to a hearing or argument before all of the judges of the court sitting together depending on the court, a panel of judges.

Encumbrance - A liability or claim levied on property, such as a mortgage, lien, or assessment.

Enjoin - To require a person or entity, by injunction, to perform or to abstain from some act.

Entity - A legally identifiable being with specific legal rights and which may be held legally liable, such as an individual, partnership, corporation, or governmental body.

Entrapment - The act of officers or agents of the government in inducing a person to commit a crime that the person would not otherwise have committed, except for the provocations of a law enforcement official.

Equity - The side of the court that hears and decides cases based upon general unwritten rules of fairness as opposed to the rules of common law. Equity courts award non-monetary remedies in contrast to courts of law, which award monetary remedies.

Escrow - An agreement whereby a writing, deed, money, or security is placed in the custody of a third person (escrow agent) pending the occurrence of a specified contingency, performance of a specified condition, or receipt of a specified notice authorizing release.

Estate - The total property owned by a person, both real and personal, as well as property rights and rights in an action, including all of the liabilities of an individual. Most often refers to the holdings of a personal representative of someone who has died, but also may refer to the holdings of a guardian holding property for the benefit of a minor or an incapacitated person. See also Marital Estate.

Estoppel - A principle that provides that a person is legally precluded from denying facts as the result of previous acts or failures to act or acceptance of facts, which were relied upon by another party.

Et al. - An abbreviation meaning and others, such as where there are several plaintiffs.

Et seq. - An abbreviation meaning and the following.

Et ux. - An abbreviation meaning and wife, such as where a grantor's wife joins in the conveyance of real property.

Evidence - Anything tending to prove or disprove a disputed fact. Examples of evidence include, but are not limited to: testimony (oral statements made in court), tangible evidence (things or objects that have physical existence), documentary evidence (letters, memoranda, reports or other writings), and demonstrative evidence (procedure or re-creation where the cause and effect of an event are shown or acted out). See also Circumstantial Evidence, Rules of Evidence, and Parol Evidence Rule.

Ex Parte - Acts done on behalf of one party only without the knowledge of another party or without another party being given the opportunity to participate. Ex parte communications between a party and a court are frowned upon and avoided whenever possible.

Ex Post Facto - An act or fact occurring after a previous act or fact, and relating to it. An ex post facto law, which makes a crime greater in magnitude when prosecuted than when the crime was committed, is unconstitutional under the United States Constitution.

Exclusionary Rule - Doctrine prohibiting the use in criminal prosecutions of evidence determined to have been obtained in violation of an individualís constitutional rights, such as the suppression of a defendantís statements made to authorities without having been provided the appropriate Miranda warnings.

Execute - To sign a document. It also refers to a creditorís selling of a debtorís property through a Sheriff or Constable to satisfy a judgment.

Execution - Often used to refer to the imposition of capital punishment, meaning the killing of a criminal defendant for having committed first-degree murder. It also refers to an individualís signing of a document.

Executor or Executrix - A person appointed by an individual who made a will to carry out the provisions of the will. The executor/trix is responsible for collecting the assets of the decedent, paying all outstanding liabilities of the decedent and ensuring that the beneficiaries of the will receive the property to which they are entitled under the will.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies - Doctrine requiring that the person seeking relief in a matter relating to an administrative subject must try all available administrative remedies before going to court.

Exhibit - A paper, document or tangible article introduced as evidence at a hearing or trial and displayed to the court and jury during a trial or hearing.

Expert Testimony - Testimony usually consisting of opinion evidence given on a scientific, technical, or professional matter by persons qualified to speak authoritatively because of special training, skill, experience, or familiarity about a subject.

Extradition - The surrender of an accused or convicted criminal by a custodial jurisdiction to another jurisdiction outside of its own territory and within the other jurisdictionís territory.


Fact Question - Issues in a trial or hearing concerning facts, and how or whether they occurred as opposed to questions of law.

Failure of Consideration - Not achieving the expected value of something given to induce a person to enter into a contract.

False Pretenses - Intentional misrepresentation of existing fact to obtain anotherís property.

Fee Simple - Absolute and perpetual ownership of real property without limitation or condition.

Felony - An offense more serious than a misdemeanor, often punishable by death or imprisonment for more than one year. Felonies are graded as first, second, and third degree, with first-degree felonies being the most severe.

Fiduciary - A person who manages money or property for someone else. For example, the executor of an estate, the director of a corporation or the trustee of a trust stand in a fiduciary capacity, whose obligations are defined by law in a fiduciary code.

Foreclosure - A legal proceeding to enforce payment of a debt through the sale of property upon which a creditor holds a lien.

Forfeit - To lose or to be forced to give up property, a right, or a privilege as a result of error, misconduct, crime, or negligence.

Forgery - Intentionally falsifying or altering a document with the intent to defraud.

Fraud - An intentional misrepresentation designed to deprive another of property or rights, or to inflict injury in some manner.

Full Faith and Credit Clause - Provides that all states must recognize the legislative acts, public records, and judicial decisions of other states (Article IV, section 1 of the United States Constitution).


Garnishment - A statutory proceeding in which a creditor seizes a debtorís property or money, which is in the possession or control of a third party, or garnishee (such as a financial institution holding a bank account), to apply to the debts of the debtor.

Gift - The transfer of ownership from one person or entity to another for no consideration.

Grand Jury - A body of citizens whose duties consist of receiving complaints and accusations in criminal cases, hearing the evidence, determining whether probable cause exists that a crime has been committed, and issuing indictments when it is decided that a trial should take place.

Grantee - The person or entity to whom property is conveyed.

Grantor - The person or entity who conveys property to another.

Gross Negligence - Failure to perform a manifest duty in reckless disregard of the consequences to another personís life or property.

Guaranty - A promise to answer for payment of debt or performance obligation of another.

Guardian Ad Litem - An attorney appointed by the court to represent the interests or potential interests of a minor or an incapacitated person in a pending court proceeding.


Habeas Corpus - (Latin:ìyou have the body) A variety of writs to bring an individual before a court or judge. Most commonly refers to a writ directing the release a person from unlawful imprisonment.

Harmless Error Doctrine - The concept that minor or harmless error committed by a lower court during trial was not prejudicial to the rights of a party and does not require reversal of the judgment by an appellate court.

Hearing - A legal proceeding in which witnesses are heard and evidence is presented. Hearings are used primarily by legislative and administrative agencie,s and can be adjudicative or merely investigatory in nature.

Hearsay - Testimony that is not derived from a witness personal knowledge; therefore, it is generally inadmissible in a judicial proceeding unless it falls within one of the many exceptions which provides for admissibility.

Holding Company - Company whose business is owning stock in and supervising management of other companies in whose stock it usually has a controlling interest.

Holograph - Refers to a will or deed handwritten entirely by the testator/trix or grantor and not witnessed.

Horizontal Merger - A combination of two companies that produce the same or similar products and sell them in the same geographic market.

Hostile or Adverse Witness - A witness who is subject to cross-examination by the party calling him or her to testify because of a previously unknown antagonism to that party.

Hung Jury - A jury that cannot agree upon a verdict after a suitable period of deliberation, resulting in a mistrial of the case. In criminal cases, a hung jury allows the prosecution to try the defendant again without violating constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

Hypothetical Question - A combination of assumed or proven facts upon which an expert witness is asked to state an opinion.


Impanel - The act of the clerk of the court in making up a list of the jurors who have been selected for a trial after voir dire has concluded and both sides have used their peremptory challenges and challenges for cause. The jurors then take an oath to perform their duty after which a trial proceeds with the introduction of evidence.

Impeachment of a Witness - To attack a witness' credibility by cross-examination or by introduction of evidence such as prior inconsistent statements.

Implied Contract - A contract in which a promise is not expressed, but rather inferred from conduct or implied in law.

Imputed Negligence - Negligence that is not committed by an individual or entity, but because of a joint legal interest or other legal relationship, he or she is liable. It is often used in a principal/agent situation. See also Respondeat Superior.

Inadmissible - Refers to evidence that, under the established rules of evidence, cannot be admitted in court.

In Camera - In chambers; in private. Typically, it is a review of evidence by a judge in chambers and not in open court.

In Personam - Referring to the jurisdiction that a court obtains over an individual or other entity.

In Re - In the matter of; concerning; regarding.

In Rem - Refers to a courtís jurisdiction over a particular piece of property, real or personal.

Indemnify/Indemnification - To compensate another for a loss or damage

Independent Contractor - Person who contracts to perform some action for another person or organization, but is not under their control as to how the work is done.

Indictment - A written accusation, presented by a grand jury, which charges a person with a crime.

Injunction - A court order prohibiting someone from doing some specified act.

Insanity - In criminal law, it is used to refer to a mental state whereby a criminal defendant, due to mental illness, lacks the ability to form the specific intent to commit a crime.

Insolvent - Generally, lacking the means to pay debts. In bankruptcy law, describes a person or entity that cannot pay debts as they fall due or in the normal course of business.

Instruction - At the close of a jury trial, the explanation given by the judge to the jury concerning the laws pertaining to the case and the application of the laws to the facts of the case.

Instrument - A formal written legal document, such as a lease, will, or contract.

Intangible Property - Property that is not of a physical nature but still has value, such as bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and mortgages.

Intellectual Property - Collective term used to refer to intangible property rights, such as copyrights, trademarks, patents, or trade secrets.

Inter Alia - Among other things.

Inter Alios - Between other persons.

Inter Vivos - From one living person to another. Where property passes from one living person to another, as opposed to by the death of a person.

Interlocutory - Something intervening between the beginning and the end of a lawsuit which decides some point or matter, but is not a final decision of the whole controversy.

Interrogatories - A pre-trial discovery device consisting of formal written questions posed to a party or witness, who then must provide written answers to the questions under oath.

Intervention - A procedure allowing a third person, not originally a named party to a legal action, to voluntarily become a party to it.

Intestate - Dying without leaving a will, which means that the decedentís property passes to his/her beneficiaries according to statutory law.


Joint and Several Liability - Doctrine that permits a group of defendants to be held both individually and collectively liable for all damages suffered by the plaintiff, meaning that a plaintiff can recover the entire amount of damages from one defendant, even if all of the defendants are liable.

Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship - Ownership of real property by more than one person in which each joint tenant owns the entire property, and in which ownership of the property remains entirely with the surviving joint tenants upon the death of another joint tenant.

Judge - An elected or appointed official of a trial or appellate court whose responsibilities include conducting hearings, trials, and other legal proceedings to determine disputed issues of fact and law.

Judgment - Official decision of a court resolving the issues in a legal action and stating the rights and obligations of those involved in the action, which may be used by a creditor to levy on a debtorís property and execute on such property.

Judicial District - The designation of a geographic area over which a particular court  has jurisdiction.

Juris Doctor - The degree (J.D.) bestowed by law schools upon students who have earned sufficient academic credit to be eligible to practice law.

Jurisdiction - The authority of a court to hear a particular case and to render a judgment. See also In Rem, In Personam, and Subject Matter Jurisdiction.

Jurisprudence - The philosophy of law, or the science that deals with the principles of law and legal relations.

Jury - A certain number of persons who are selected according to law, sworn to inquire about matters of fact, and declare the truth from evidence presented. See also Grand Juryîand Petit Jury.

Jury Commissioner - An officer appointed by the court to draw the names for the panel of jurors who shall be available to sit for a specified term of court.


Kiting - The wrongful practice of writing checks against a bank account where funds are insufficient to cover them in the hope that before they are presented, necessary funds will be deposited.


Landlord - The owner, or lessor, of real property who, for payment of rent, allows possession and use of such property by someone else (the lessee).

Last Clear Chance Doctrine - A rebuttal to a defense of contributory negligence that states that although a plaintiffís own negligence may have been self-endangering, the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid injuring the plaintiff.

Leading Question - A question that, when posed, suggests the answer to the witness. In most cases it can be answered with a simple yes or no. Leading questions are permitted on cross-examination, but are prohibited on a party's direct examination of its own witness.

Legal Remedy - Seeking money damages as opposed to seeking an equitable remedy.

Levy - The legal process by which property is seized by a sheriff, who then notifies the possessor of such property that a creditor has a judgment against the debtor/owner of the property and intends to sell the property to satisfy a judgment or debt.

Liable - Responsible or accountable to another.

Libel - Defamation in print, writing, pictures, or signs. In its most general sense, any written publication that is false and injurious to an individualís reputation. See also Defamation.

Lien - Any of a variety of charges or encumbrances on property that are imposed to secure the payment of a debt or the performance or nonperformance of some act. Liens are enforced by foreclosure proceedings and can be imposed on real or personal property.

Limited Tort - A limitation on financial recovery in civil actions for personal injury resulting from automobile accidents whereby an injured party only may recover economic damages, such as lost wages. Non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, may not be recovered unless the individual has sustained a ìserious bodily injury.î In contrast, a full tort selection currently available in Pennsylvania motor vehicle insurance policies gives an insured the right to make claims and file suit for injuries that are not serious.

Lis Pendens - A pending lawsuit. Generally, the purpose of filing a notice of lis pendens on public records is to warn all persons that the title to certain property is in litigation, the outcome of which may affect the title to, any lien on, or possession of the property.

Litigant - A party to a lawsuit.

Locus Delicti - The place where a criminal offense occurred.

Long Arm Statute - Permits a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a person or business that does not reside in the state where the court is located.


Malfeasance - Intentionally committing an unlawful act.

Malicious Prosecution - An action for recovery of damages that resulted to a person, property, or reputation from previous civil or criminal proceedings that were prosecuted or pursued with malice and without probable cause.

Malpractice - The failure of a professional person, such as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, to abide by accepted standards of practice, which results in injury, loss, or damage.

Mandamus - (Latin: we command) A writ traditionally used in federal court to remedy abuses of judicial power in a lower court.

Mandatory Sentence - Legislatively established minimum sentences to which a criminal defendant must, at a minimum, be sentenced following conviction of a particular crime.

Manslaughter - The unlawful killing of another without malice. Manslaughter is classified as either voluntary or involuntary, depending upon the circumstances.

Marital Property - The property accumulated by spouses while married to each other, and which is subject to equitable distribution upon dissolution of the marriage.

Marriage - The legal union of two individuals in the bonds of matrimony.

Master - An officer of the court, usually an attorney, who is appointed by the court to assist it in specific judicial duties that may arise in a case, such as a domestic relations matter. Such duties may include taking testimony and making a report and recommended result to the court.

Material Evidence - Evidence that is relevant to issues in dispute.

Mechanicís Lien - A claim created by state statutes and obtained by a contractor or subcontractor against real property as a result of the contractor or subcontractor having made improvements to the real property.

Memorandum of Law - A document prepared by an attorney before a hearing, trial, or other legal proceeding that outlines for the court the basic facts and legal arguments concerning the matters at issue.

Mens Rea - Guilty mind. An element of criminal responsibility that must be proved to secure a conviction for a criminal offense.

Misdemeanor - A criminal offense, which is less severe than a felony, and often is punishable by probation, fine, or imprisonment other than in a penitentiary. Misdemeanors are graded as first, second, and third degree misdemeanors, with first-degree misdemeanors being the most severe.

Misfeasance - The improper performance of a lawful act.

Mistrial - A trial terminated by the court due to a prejudicial event or error occurring during the trial, or as the result of a jury being unable to reach a verdict.

Mitigating Circumstance - A circumstance that does not constitute a justification or excuse for an offense, but may reduce the degree of culpability or punishment. It is often used in sentencing proceedings for criminal offenses, especially in cases of first-degree murder where a prosecutor seeks the death penalty.

Moot - An issue that is not settled by a judicial decision due to an occurrence of events over a period of time.

Moral Turpitude - An act or behavior of baseness, vileness, or dishonesty of a high degree. A crime of moral turpitude is defined as one demonstrating depravity in the private and social duties that an individual owes to others and society at large.

Motion - A written or oral application addressed to the court that requests an action be taken, such as issuing a specific order.

Municipal Courts - Courts whose geographic authority is confined to a city or community.

Murder - The unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought. Murder has three degrees of culpability: first, second, and third-degree, with first-degree being the most severe.


Negligence - An act or the omission to do something which a reasonable and prudent person would, or would not, do under similar circumstances.

Negotiable Instrument - A document, such as a check, note, or bill that evidences an established financial liability or promise from one person to another, which may be transferred from one person to another for consideration.

Nolo Contendere - (Latin: I will not contest it) A plea entered in a criminal case by the defendant which indicates that the prosecution has enough evidence to establish the defendantís guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; however, it is not an admission or denial of the charges. Such a plea is likely in antitrust actions, for instance, because the plea may not be used against the defendant in a civil action based upon the same acts.

Non Obstante Veredicto - "Notwithstanding the verdict". A judgment entered by the court for one party despite a juryís verdict against that party. A motion for a directed verdict is a precondition to a granting of a judgment n.o.v.

Notice of Appeal - A document that gives notice of an intention to appeal, which is filed with the appellate court and served on the opposing party.

Novation - Substitution of a new contract, debt, or obligation for an existing one.


Objection - In a trial, calling the courtís attention to improper proposed evidence or to a trial procedure. An objection requires a ruling by a court, which either sustains or overrules the objection. 

Of Counsel - Counsel assisting in the preparation, management, or presentation on appeal of a case, as opposed to the principal attorney of record.

Opinion - The formal written decision rendered by a judge or court in a case reciting the governing facts and legal principles of a case, and the reasons upon which the decision is based.

Opinion Evidence - Evidence consisting of what a witness believes or infers concerning disputed facts, as opposed to a witness' personal knowledge of a fact. Except in the case of expert witnesses, opinion evidence has limited admissibility.

Option - The right to purchase or lease something at agreed-upon terms and price within a set period of time.

Order - A written statement of a judge or court that compels an individual or entity to do or not do something.

Ordinance - A law enacted by the legislative body of a borough, township, or city that is enforceable within the borough, township, or city.

Original Jurisdiction - The authority of a court to hear and decide a case in its initial presentation.


Panel - The whole body of persons summoned as jurors for a term of court or those selected to hear a particular case.

Pardon - Action by a governor or the United States president that relieves a criminal defendant from serving the sentence imposed.

Parole - Releasing a criminal defendant after serving part of a sentence.

Parol Evidence Rule - When parties have a written agreement, all previous oral agreements and negotiations, or parol evidence, merge with the written agreement and may not be used to prove the terms of the agreement unless there was a mutual mistake or fraud in the preparation of the written agreement.

Party - Someone named in a legal matter who has a direct interest in the outcome of it.

Patent - A property right issued and regulated by the U.S. government generally giving the owner the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention, unique idea, discovery, invention, or process, for a definite term of years.

Per Curium - (Latin: by the court) An opinion or order by the whole court, as opposed to an opinion or order of one judge of the court.

Peremptory Challenge/Peremptory Strike - A challenge or strike used to reject a prospective juror without stating a cause, as opposed to a challenge for cause, which questions a prospective jurorís ability to sit as a juror as a result of bias, prejudice, or other circumstance that would prevent the juror from being able to deliberate fairly.

Pension Plan - A defined or fixed benefit pension plan is where an employer promises specific benefits to each employee. A qualified pension plan is where an employer can take a tax deduction in the year it makes contributions, but payments are not taxable to employees until they receive them.

Performance Bond - Type of contract bond, given by a contractor, which protects against loss due to the inability or refusal of a contractor to complete the contract.

Perjury - False statement of material importance made under oath by a person who does not believe the statement is true.

Petition - A written request addressed to the court asking for a court order or some other form of relief.

Petit Jury - A jury comprised of twelve or less persons for the trial of a civil or criminal case.

Plaintiff - A person who initiates a civil lawsuit.

Plea - To make a defendant's formal answer to a plaintiffís complaint or to a criminal indictment. The five pleas possible for a criminal defendant are: (1) not guilty (a complete denial of guilt); (2) not guilty by reason of insanity (a defense of criminal insanity); (3) no contest (nolo contendere) (a defendant denies guilt but admits that the facts on which the charge is based would be sufficient evidence for a jury to convict the defendant); (4) guilty (a complete admission of guilt); and (5) guilty but mentally ill (a defendant admits guilt but blames his/her criminal acts on a mental illness).

Pleading - Written documents filed by parties in civil lawsuits that set forth the partiesí respective claims and defenses. Generally, a pleading that contains allegations of fact requires another party to file a responsive pleading.

Polling the Jury - Asking each juror individually to state his/her verdict in open court after the verdict is read.

Post-Trial Motions - A motion filed by a party that is dissatisfied with a trial result. Post-trial motions are available in civil and criminal cases, and are subject to specific rules concerning the timely filing and disposition of the post-trial motions. An appeal may be filed to an appellate court once post-trial motions have been decided by the trial court.

Power of Attorney - A written document authorizing an individual to take certain legal actions on behalf of another person.

Praecipe - A legal document filed by a party in a civil or criminal case that is addressed to the clerk of the court, which directs that

Prejudicial Error - An error that requires an appellate court to reverse the judgment of a lower court because the error may have had a substantial effect on the outcome of the trial in the lower court. Synonymous with reversible error.

Preliminary Arraignment - Usually occurring immediately after arrest, a preliminary arraignment is when a district justice informs a criminal defendant of the charges that are being filed and determines bail.

Preliminary Hearing - A hearing before a judge to determine whether an individual charged with a crime should be held for trial.

Preliminary Objection - A responsive pleading in a civil case in which a party alleges that another partyís previous pleading is legally defective and asks that the court either dismiss or strike part of or all the previous pleading.

Preponderance of the Evidence - The burden of proof in a civil case whereby a party must present a greater weight of credible evidence than the evidence presented by the opposing party.

Presentment - A written accusation of a crime initiated by a grand jury, as opposed to an indictment in response to a government suit.

Prima Facie - (Latin: on the face of it) A degree of proof whereby there is enough evidence for a reasonable person to believe that a set of events may have occurred.

Priority of Liens - The order in which liens on a property are paid. Generally, the rule is first in time, first in priority; however, certain liens, such as those for unpaid taxes, may have priority regardless of when they were filed.

Privileged Communications - Statements protected from forced disclosure in court based on the fact that they were made within a protected relationship, such as husband/wife or attorney/client.

Pro Bono Publico - For The Public good. Pro bono legal work is providing legal services without charge.

Probable Cause - In criminal law, reasonable grounds to justify a search or arrest or to bring a person to trial.

Probate - In strict usage, a court procedure to prove a will valid or invalid. The term generally refers to everything related to administering an estate.

Probation - Allowing a person convicted of a criminal offense to remain out of jail under the supervision of a probation officer for a specified length of time. A criminal defendantís probation may be revoked if he/she violates a term or condition of probation, or is convicted of a new offense during the probationary period.

Procedural Law - Generally, the body of law establishing the method of enforcing rights, as compared to ìsubstantiveî laws establishing what those rights are.

Product Liability - Legal responsibility of manufacturers and sellers of products to compensate persons harmed by their products.

Promissory Note - A written promise to pay a determined sum of money to a named person according to specified terms.

Promulgate - Announce officially.

Property Bond - Posting real estate as bail to secure a criminal defendantís appearance in court.

Prosecutor - One who instigates the prosecution upon which an accused is arrested, or one who prosecutes another for a crime in the name of the government.

Protection from Abuse Order - An order of court that prohibits someone, such as a spouse, from verbally or physically harassing, stalking, or assaulting such other person. A violation of a protection from abuse order may result in immediate incarceration.

Prothonotary - The public officer who acts as the principal clerk of courts in civil matters.

Proximate Cause - Cause sufficiently closely related to its effect, in time and foreseeability, to justify imposing legal consequences.

Public Defender - Attorney employed by government or appointed by court to represent indigent criminal defendants.

Punitive Damages - Damages awarded to a plaintiff to punish a defendant for committing acts found to be outrageous and not tolerable in a civilized society.


Quash - To vacate an appeal, an indictment, summons, or subpoena.

Quasi-judicial - An act that is done, or authority that is exercised by a public body, which is in part administrative and in part the hearing and determination of facts.

Quid Pro Quo - Something for something; a fair return or consideration.

Quitclaim Deed - A deed that does not state a grantor's interest in real property, but rather states that the grantor transfers to a grantee whatever interest he/she possesses. A quitclaim deed contains no warranties of title.

Quo Warranto - A lawsuit challenging the legal right of a person who holds a particular public office to hold that office.

Quorum - A sufficient number of members of a governing body gathered at a particular time and place to permit official action or deliberations of such governing body.


Real Estate - Property consisting of land, buildings, and anything permanently affixed to the land and buildings, such as fences or light fixtures.

Reasonable Doubt - Doubt based on the exercise of rational judgment and the presence or absence of evidence to support a conclusion. Usually refers to the standard used to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant in a criminal case.

Rebuttal - That which tends to explain, contradict, or disprove evidence offered by the adverse party.

Receiver - In bankruptcy, an appointee of the court who manages the assets of the bankrupt party, pending legal action.

Record Costs - Fees paid to the court or agents of a court and the sheriff as part of a civil lawsuit.

Recusal - A judgeís withdrawal from hearing a lawsuit because of personal interest, or bias, or the appearance of bias.

Redirect Examination - Questioning of a witness by a party after the witness has been subjected to cross-examination by opposing parties.

Referee - A person to whom a pending case is referred by the court in order for that person to take testimony and report to the court.

Register or Registrar - A court officer whose duty it is to keep official public records, such as the register of wills or recorder of deeds.

Registered Trademark - Governmental registration granted for words and/or symbols employed to identify the source of goods or services.

Remand - To send a case back to a lower court for further action.

Removal - Usually refers to an order by a court directing the transfer of a case to another court.

Replevin - A lawsuit filed to obtain possession of personal property wrongfully held by someone else.

Reply - Generally, a pleading by a plaintiff in response to a pleading by a defendant.

Res Ipsa Loquitur - The thing speaks for itself. The doctrine imposes negligence upon a defendant without the plaintiff actually proving negligence. Use is limited to cases in which the cause of the plaintiffís injury was entirely under the control of the defendant, and the injury only could have been caused by negligence of the defendant.

Res Judicata - A rule of law which states that once a final judgment has been rendered by a court, the matter can not be re-litigated between the parties.

Rescission - The act of withdrawing, nullifying, voiding, or canceling a contract.

Respondeat Superior - Let the master answer. A doctrine which means that an employer or principal is responsible for the acts and omissions of its employees or agents for acts or omissions occurring within the scope of their duties as employees or agents.

Respondent - The party who answers a petition or an appeal, such as an appellee.

Responsive Pleading - A pleading filed by a party in a civil lawsuit that either contains objections to a partyís previous pleading, or admits or denies allegations of fact contained in another partyís pleading.

Restitution - When a criminal defendant pays money to the victim of a crime to reimburse the victim for a financial loss occurring as a result of the defendantís criminal activity.

Restraining Order - Issued by a court as a temporary measure to keep someone from acting until the court has determined whether to issue an injunction against the act.

Restrictive Covenant - Provision in a deed that puts limitations on the use of the property; or, in a partnership or employment contract, provision that limits an individualís freedom to do the same sort of work after the contract ends.

Retain - The act of a client to employ legal counsel.

Retainer - Often refers to the initial fee paid by a client to an attorney to secure the attorney's services.

Reversible Error - See Prejudicial Error.

Robbery - The taking of property from another by force or with the threat of force.

Rule to Show Cause - An order of court stating that a further order of court will become final unless a party files exceptions and/or a response within a defined time period.

Rule of Court - An order made by a court establishing the general rules of practice before the court.

Rules of Evidence - Rules, statutes, and case decisions that govern what evidence can be admitted in hearings and trials.


Satisfaction - To pay a debt in its entirety.

Search - A government officialís inspection of private property, either real or personal, for the purpose of discovering weapons, contraband, or evidence.

Search Warrant - A written order issued by a court that directs an officer to search a specific location for evidence of criminal activity.

Seizure - The detention of an individual or his/her property that restricts the individualís or the propertyís freedom of movement.

Sentence - Following a verdict of guilty, or a plea of guilty, guilty but mentally ill, or nolo contendere, a sentence is the judgment in a criminal action in which a court imposes its punishment as a fine, probation, imprisonment, or a combination thereof.

Servant - An employee or one who acts for the benefit of another.

Service of Process - Official notification authorized by a rule of court that a person has been named as a party to a lawsuit or has been accused of some offense. Process consists of a summons, citation, or warrant to which a copy of a complaint or pleading may be attached.

Sentencing Guidelines - Guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission on Sentencing that provide for recommended ranges of minimum sentences to which a criminal defendant may be sentenced.

Settlement - An agreement reached between disputing parties.

Several Liability - Liability attaching to a party sufficient to support a suit without reference to anyone elseís liability.

Sheriff - The elected county official whose principal duties include aiding the criminal and civil courts, such as keeping order in a courtroom, protecting participants in civil and criminal cases, service of process, executing judgments, and holding judicial sales.

Silent Partner - An investor who does not manage a company but shares in profits and losses.

Sine Qua Non - An indispensable requisite or condition.

Slander - Injuring anotherís reputation, business, or means of livelihood by false and derogatory spoken words. See also Defamation.

Sovereign Immunity - The doctrine that a government or governmental agency can not be sued without the consent of the Legislature.

Specific Intent - The formulation of intent necessary to make an act criminal. It refers to a criminal defendantís designed purpose that his/her act created the expected result.

Specific Performance - In equity, a court order compelling a party to do a specific act. Where damages would be inadequate compensation for a breach of contract, a contractor may be compelled to perform the act that was agreed upon.

Spin-off - Subsidiary of a corporation organized by a parent corporation. Part of the assets of the parent are transferred to the subsidiary, whose stock is then transferred to the parent's shareholders without requiring that they give up any of their stock in the parent.

Standard of Proof - Degree of proof required in a specific kind of case. In criminal law, it is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and in the majority of civil cases it is proof by the preponderance of the evidence.

Stare Decisis - Refers to general policy of the courts not to overturn precedents established through litigation.

Statute - An act of a legislature, which constitutes a law.

Statute of Limitations - The time limit within which an action must be brought after its cause arises. Statutes vary in length depending on the type of case. The unexcused failure to commence an action within that time bars it forever. Statutes of limitations apply to civil and criminal cases.

Stay - A court order that temporarily suspends a case or the implementation of a court order.

Stipulation - An agreement by opposing attorneys with respect to any matter involved in a proceeding.

Strict Liability - Doctrine that holds defendants liable for harm caused by their actions regardless of their intentions or lack of negligence or fault. Often applied to manufacturers or sellers of defective products.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction - The authority of a court to hear cases involving particular issues.

Subpoena - A court-authorized document compelling witnesses to appear to give testimony or to produce certain documents, or both. A subpoena duces tecum compels production of certain specific documents and other items by a witness when responding to a subpoena.

Substantive Law - Law dealing with rights, duties, and liabilities between individuals or entities, as opposed to procedural law.

Successor Liability - In corporate law, liability of a corporation for its predecessorís obligations.

Summons - A writ directing a sheriff or other officer to notify a named person that an action has been instituted against him in court. A summons may require a person to appear on a specific date to answer a complaint.

Sunset Law - Statute requiring administrative entities periodically to justify their continued existence to a legislature.

Sunshine Law - Requires governmental bodies to hold open meetings.

Supersedeas - Stay of proceedings.î A writ or court order suspending legal proceedings or the pursuit of any further action in regards to a pending matter. See also "Stay."

Suppression Hearing - A hearing concerning a criminal defendantís motion to prohibit the use of certain evidence that is alleged to have been obtained in violation of the defendantís rights. The hearing is held prior to trial and the prosecution has the burden of producing evidence and establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendantís rights were not violated in the process of obtaining the evidence.

Supra - "Above." As used in legal documents, it refers the reader to a preceding part of the document.

Surety - Person who undertakes to pay money or perform some act in place of someone else if that person does not meet his/her obligation.


Tangible Personal Property - Items of property that, generally speaking, are movable and not affixed or connected to land or buildings.

Temporary Restraining Order - An order issued by a court in urgent situations that precludes someone from doing something that he/she is doing or intends to do.

Tenancy - The possessing of lands, buildings, or personal property by right or title.

Tenancy by the Entirety - Joint ownership of real estate by husband and wife, whereby upon the death of either, the other takes title to the whole property.

Tenant - A possessor of real estate under a lease or other agreement with someone who has a superior claim of title to the real estate.

Tenant in Common - Multiple owners of real or personal property, whereby each owner owns a specific percent of the property.

Tender Offer - Takeover bid; offer to buy a companyís stock made directly to its stockholders by another company.

Testamentary - Of or pertaining to a will.

Testate - Description of an estate where a decedent has left a valid will.

Testator or Testatrix - The person who makes a will or leaves a will at death.

Testimony - Oral evidence given by a witness under oath, either orally or in the written form of an affidavit or deposition.

Theft - The unlawful taking of personal property belonging to another.

Tipstaff - Court-appointed officer who serves the court in various ways while it is in session.

Title - Evidence of a personís right to hold or possess certain real or personal property.

Tort - In civil law, an injury or wrong committed against the person or property of another, with the exception of breach of contract.

Trademark - Words and/or symbols employed to identify the source of goods or services.

Trade Name - Name that distinguishes a business from its competitors.

Trade Secret - Something that gives a company a competitive advantage, such as technical information, that is kept confidential in the company.

Transcript - The official record of a trial, hearing, deposition, or other legal proceeding.

Trespass - An offense against anotherís person or property, whereby an individual, without justification, physically imposes upon the person or property of another.

Trial Court - A court that conducts hearings and trials by accepting testimony and other evidence to reach a verdict or decision, as opposed to an appellate court where appeals of decisions made in trial courts are heard.

Trial De Novo - A new trial or retrial in which a case is heard as if no trial had previously taken place. In a trial de novo, no weight is placed on the findings or outcome in the previous case.

Trust - An arrangement in which the owner of real or personal property transfers ownership of such property to a trustee who holds and manages the property for the benefit of a third party, called a ìbeneficiary.î It also may refer to a document creating a trust.


Undue Influence - The abuse of a confidential relationship by one party who exercises overbearing control over another person when convincing that person to do an act or to enter into a transaction. It usually is to the financial benefit of the individual exercising the control.

Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.) - One of the Uniform Laws drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and the American Law Institute; governs commercial transactions. It has been adopted in whole or substantial part by all U.S. states.

Unlawful Detainer - Forcibly restricting an individualís freedom of movement without probable cause or without the legal authority to do so.

Unsecured Bail - Releasing a criminal defendant on bail pending disposition of a criminal charge based on his/her promise that he/she will appear at future proceedings. If the person does not appear, he/she agrees to owe a specified amount of money as forfeited bail.

Usury - The act or practice of charging a borrower more than the maximum legal interest rate on a loan. 


Vacate - Set an order or decision aside or render it void.

Variance - Authorized departure from some regulation or ordinance. For example, authorization to use property.

Special thanks to the Allegheny Bar Association and attorney Jennifer Poller for compiling these legal definitions.