Our legal language has a long history, dating back to the Middle Ages. Since 1789, when it began, the nation’s court system has carried out the role of interpreting and enforcing the U.S. Constitution. Along with that, and over the years, lawyers and judges have almost developed a language all their own - one rifled with Latin terms you might have heard, but don’t really know what they mean.
Lawyers and judges use specific legal terminology when handling your case. Latin phrases and common court room lingo are quite common with lawyers. As lawyers, we realize we are well-versed in this language, but our clients typically are not. When you’re in the courtroom for the first time, it can be overwhelming listening to these unfamiliar words and not knowing what they mean.
To communicate effectively with you, our client, we want to keep you involved as much as possible - not just in what’s going on in your case, but also in understanding it. This is the reason we’ve compiled this common courtroom lingo guide.
This glossary of legal terms can help acquaint yourself with some of the words and phrases that are used in our judicial system and by us here at Rhoads & Sinon LLP. Our goal with this lawyer lingo guide is to help you feel better informed about what is happening with your case.
Understanding Common Courtroom Lingo
There are a number of common legal terms in courtrooms that the judge and lawyers use. You may even use some of the terms in your everyday conversations. However, in a courtroom setting, the definition might not be the same.
A few examples of commonly used legal terms with Latin origin include:
- Alias: (otherwise, at another time). This term today often refers to another name you might use to hide your identity.
- Alibi: (at another place, elsewhere). An alibi is proof of where you were during a crime to establish the fact you didn't commit the crime. Typically, it's a person who can back up your whereabouts.
- Versus: (turned). The terms “in contrast to”' or “against” are most common English meanings to versus. Many people abbreviate versus as vs.
- Per se: (by itself). In legal terms, the phrase means something that is, as a matter of law.
- Bona fide: (genuine; real). Latin for “good faith.” This term implies making a sincere good intention despite the outcome.
During a courtroom session, there are a few very common terms used during the case proceedings. These include:
- Objection: As the term implies, the opposing counsel objects to something being said or done during the proceedings.
- Sustained: The judge accepts the objection made.
- Overruled: The judge has rejected an attorney's objection to a question of a witness or admission of evidence. By overruling the objection, in other words, the judge allows the question or evidence in court.
Judges and lawyers follow very specific laws and actions. By understanding the common courtroom lingo, you can be more knowledgeable in your case and understand what the judge, lawyer or parole officer is saying. Here, we’ve categorized some of the common terms used in criminal defense, corporate defense, employment and labor law as well as estates and trusts.
Common Courtroom Lingo for Criminal Defense
Many people misunderstand the law and misuse legal terminology, and this can be the case in criminal defense proceedings.
Robbery vs. Burglary
For example, suppose you’ve been charged with burglary. The individual whose home you burglarized calls the police and claims they have been “robbed” since their stereo, television, computer, jewelry and other personal belongings are missing.
The fact here is that you didn't actually “rob” them, since they were not at home at the time. You also didn’t actually take the belongings from them personally or in close vicinity to them. Instead, you “burglarized” them.
It's understandable why people get this confused. There are many television programs where you'll see people dramatizing the situation claiming they have been robbed. In some cases, they’re right, but in other cases, they’re using the term incorrectly.
Assault vs. Battery
Another term that is often used incorrectly is assault and battery. You punch another man and he screams that he was “assaulted.” The fact is, you didn't “assault” him because you actually made physical contact with him. Therefore, you battered him.
So, your criminal defense lawyer in Harrisburg might use some of the above and following terminology in your criminal defense case:
- Acquittal: This is where a jury makes the verdict that you - the defendant of a crime supposedly committed - are not guilty. The term can also be used when a judge finds that there isn’t enough sufficient evidence to support the conviction.
- Arraignment: We use the term arraignment in a proceeding in which you’re brought into court, informed of your charges and asked what you plead - whether you are or are not guilty.
- Accessory: An accessory is another person who helps contribute to the crime. Typically, this is someone who assists you in hiding evidence, helps you escape or convinces you to commit the crime. They are not actually present at the crime.
- Accomplice: An accomplice is another person who participates voluntarily or knowingly in a crime through advising, abetting, aiding and/or encouraging you.
- Affirmative defense: You don't actually deny the charge in an affirmative defense, but you do justify your actions by pleading insanity, entrapment or self-defense to avoid criminal or civil responsibility.
- Beyond a reasonable doubt: This is where a jury is unquestionably satisfied to a moral certainty that the prosecution has proven every element of the crime. All evidence must be conclusive enough to remove all reasonable doubts from the ordinary person's mind.
- Habeas corpus: This is a Latin term that means “you have the body,” and it is a citizen's most fundamental right. When a judge presents a writ of habeas corpus, it means when another person has imprisoned you, they’re required to prove the legal basis of your imprisonment. Basically, prison officials or the police are not able to imprison you unless they can absolutely show you have committed the crime.
- Misdemeanor: A misdemeanor is a punishable crime with a chance of being imprisoned for a year or less. It is not as serious as a felony. Examples of misdemeanors, depending on the jurisdiction, may include:
- Petty theft
- Public intoxication
- Reckless driving
- Felony: A felony is a serious crime where you can be locked up in a federal or state prison for at least a year. You may also be sentenced to death. Examples of a felony include:
If you’ve committed the crime of theft, the value of the items that you stole determines if you’re charged with a felony or just a misdemeanor.
- Mens rea: This is a Latin term that means “guilty mind.” It’s used to illustrate your criminal intent or state of mind when you committed the crime.
- Parole: Whe you’re on parole, you’re released for a brief time period for a specific reason or permanently based on good behavior before you complete your sentence.
- Plea bargain: We use the term plea bargain when the defense and prosecution work out a deal with the approval of the judge whereby you’re provided with something in exchange for pleading guilty. For instance, you could plead for a shorter sentence after being charged with holding up a convenience store, which saves time and trouble for everyone in the trial. You may also ask for a lenient sentence by offering information about other criminals or crimes.
- Prima facie: This is a Latin term that means “on its face” or “at first look,” and it refers to when you look guilty. However, you’re still provided with the chance to defend yourself regardless of how guilty you look.
For instance, suppose during a prima facie case there is evidence of your handgun being located at the crime scene of a murder you supposedly just committed. This evidence is presented to the jury. Based upon this evidence, everyone is almost positive you'll be indicted at least, until it is shown that it was the policeman who came to the crime scene who actually shot the fatal bullet.
Common Corporate Defense Lingo
Corporate defense is where your company and all your stakeholders are being defended. This includes your business partners, shareholders and clients. When your company is defended, your management and staff are also being defended. Corporate defense puts emphasis on stakeholders being human beings, rather than mere bottom line financials or numbers.
In the courtroom, you might hear your corporate defense lawyer in Harrisburg use some of this corporate defense lingo:
- Damages: We typically use the term damages when we are referring to the amount of money you recover from a lawsuit. Damages can also refer to other things as well such as:
- Economic damages - out of pocket costs, lost profit, lost wages
- Non-economic damages - emotional distress, physical injuries, scars, suffering and pain, loss of enjoyment in life, permanent disability
Although corporations have a different measure of damages in a lawsuit, the concept is the same: Damages are what you recover in a lawsuit for loss you suffered.
- Chapter 11: This refers to a reorganization bankruptcy that typically involves a partnership or corporation. This is where you come up with a plan of reorganization to pay your creditors over a period of time to keep your business alive.
- Embezzlement: This is where you fraudulently take money or property entrusted to you from another.
Common Employment and Labor Law Lingo
The duties and rights between workers and employers are governed by employment and labor law. These rules through employment law are put in place to protect workers and ensure they are being treated fairly. Employers' interests are also protected, however.
You might hear our employment and labor law firm in Harrisburg use these terms frequently:
- Affirmative action: Affirmative action is a policy or action that favors you if you’re suffering from discrimination, particularly in relation to education or employment.
- At-will: Under Common Law, this term refers to an employee and employer relationship that is bound through a written contract or some other type of agreement that guarantees job security. If you are an at-will employee, your employer may terminate you at will without having to give cause or reason.
- Family Medical Leave Act: The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles you - if you’re eligible - to take job-protected, unpaid leave for medical or family reasons and still maintain health insurance under the same terms as if you did not take leave. Your employer has to be covered for you to be covered.
- Quid pro quo: This is a Latin term that means “what for what,” literally. It describes an expressed or implied expectation of one party obtaining something for giving up something else. For instance, quid pro quo sexual harassment is a type of harassment where one person makes it clear that if sexual demands are not met, it will result in certain rights being taking away or loss of employment.
- Subordination: This is where your claims or rights are ranked under others.
- Sexual harassment: This is a type of sex discrimination, and sexual harassment violates the 1964 title VII of the Civil Rights Act. If your employer has at least 15 employees, this act applies. Local and state governments are also included in this act as well labor organizations, employment agencies and federal government.
Requests for sexual favors, sexual advances that are not welcomed and other sexually physical and verbal conduct are considered sexual harassment when the conduct undeniably affects the employment or work performance of another individual or creates an offensive or intimidating work environment.
Common Trusts and Estates Lingo
Most estate plans have trusts. These trusts can vary and can serve a number of different purposes. Some common trust types include:
- Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts
- Credit Shelter Trusts
- Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust
Here are some common terms you might hear our trusts and estates law firm in Harrisburg use:
- Collateral: Collateral is property you pledge as security while you are satisfying a debt.
- Escrow: An escrow can be documents or money (i.e. a deed) that a neutral third party holds in escrow until the conditions of your agreement are met.
- Equity: Equity is the value of your property after the interests of other creditors and liens are considered.
- Estate planning: This is the legal process of anticipating and arranging for the management and distribution of a person’s estate after their death. One goal of estate planning is to minimize estate, gift and/or income tax. This process includes planning for incapacity and eliminating or reducing uncertainties through a probate administration. It also reduces certain expenses and taxes to maximize the value of the person's estate
- Exempt assets: This is property you’re allowed to retain and are free from creditor claims and liens on your property.
- Lien: A lien is a charge placed on your property to secure your promise to an obligation or pay a debt. Even after a discharge, you could still be responsible for the lien.
- Derived directly from the Latin verb probare, probate means to prove, examine, test or try. It is a legal process where the deceased’s will is proved, and it’s the first step in administering the deceased person’s estate, including resolving claims and distributing assets.
Additional Legal Lingo Resources
This Learn Lawyer Lingo: A Lite Guide is meant to provide you with an overview of common legal terms you might hear in the courtroom. To delve even further into legal terminology, we recommend the following additional resources:
- Black’s Law Dictionary: This is your one-stop legal resource for referencing legal terminology. All words are put in alphabetical order and include their definitions to help you learn and understand our legal jargon
- United States Court’s Glossary of Legal Terms: This glossary comes from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on behalf of the Federal Judiciary.
- Duhaime's Law Dictionary: Because many legal words stem from Latin derivatives, it’s a good idea to know some Latin terms.
We hope this guide helps you become a knowledgeable and active participant in your case. It is our job to ensure we defend your rights and by providing you with this little bit of education, and we hope it helps you to understand your rights and case better.