Glossary of Legal Terms

Understand the meaning of intricate legal terms with our exhaustive guide. Perfect for both budding law students and seasoned attorneys.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Top


Administrative Office Of The United States Courts (AO) - The federal agency responsible for collecting court statistics, administering the federal courts' budget, and performing many other administrative and programmatic functions, under the direction and supervision of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

Alford plea - A type of guilty plea in which the defendant does not admit to committing the crime but agrees that the prosecution has enough evidence to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

acquittal - Judgment that a person accused of a crime has not been shown guilty beyond any reasonable uncertainty.

adjudication - Giving or pronouncing a judgment or decree. Also the judgment given.

administrative agencies - Agencies created by the legislative branch of government to administer laws pertaining to specific areas such as taxes, transportation, and labor.

admiralty law - The body of law relating to ships, shipping, marine commerce and navigation, transportation of persons or property by sea, etc.

admissible - A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases.

advance directive - A legal document that provides instructions for medical care and only go into effect if a person cannot communicate their own wishes.

affidavit - A voluntary written statement verified by oath or affirmation which is administered by a person who is authorized to do so by law, such as a notary public or commissioner of oaths.

affirmed - Judgment by higher courts that review lower court decisions where the decision is confirmed to be correct and will stand as decided in the lower court.

alimony - The money paid by one spouse to the other after a divorce in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage.

allegation - Something that someone says happened.

alternate juror - A juror selected in the same manner as a regular juror who hears all the evidence but does not help decide the case unless called on to replace a regular juror.

alternative dispute resolution (adr) - Settling a dispute without a full, formal trial, but through mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and settlement, among others.

amicus curiae - Latin for friend of the court. Refers to a party that is allowed to provide information (usually in the form of a legal brief) to a court even though the party is not directly involved in the case at hand.

annulment - A legal decree that states that a marriage was never valid, deeming it void from the beginning almost as if it had never taken place.

answer - The formal written statement by a defendant responding to a civil complaint and setting forth the grounds for defense.

appeal - A request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to overturn the legal ruling of a lower court.

appearance - The act of coming into court as a party to a suit either in person or through an attorney.

appellant - The party who appeals a district court's decision, usually seeking reversal of that decision.

appellate - About appeals, an appellate court has the power to review the judgment of another lower court or tribunal.

appellee - The party who opposes an appellant's appeal, and who seeks to persuade the appeals court to affirm the district court's decision.

arbitration - A form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that resolves disputes outside the judiciary courts.

arbitrator - A independent person chosen by the parties in arbitration to hear evidence concerning the dispute and to make an award based on the evidence.

arraignment - A proceeding in which an individual who is accused of committing a crime is brought into court, told of the charges, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

arrest warrant - A written order directing the arrest of a party issued by a judge after a showing of probable cause.

articles of incorporation - A set of formal documents filed with a government body to legally document the creation of a company.

assets - Property of all kinds, including real and personal, tangible and intangible.

assume - An agreement to continue performing duties under a contract or lease.

automatic stay - An injunction that automatically stops lawsuits, foreclosures, garnishments, and most collection activities against the debtor the moment a bankruptcy petition is filed.


bail - Security given for the release of a person accused of a crime or witness from legal custody (usually in the form of money) to secure their appearance on the day and time appointed.

bankruptcy - A legal procedure for dealing with debt problems of individuals and businesses; specifically, a case filed under one of the chapters of title 11 of the United States Code (the Bankruptcy Code).

bankruptcy administrator - An officer of the Judiciary serving in the judicial districts of Alabama and North Carolina who, like the United States trustee, is responsible for supervising the administration of bankruptcy cases, estates, and trustees; monitoring plans and disclosure statements; monitoring creditors' committees; monitoring fee applications; and performing other statutory duties.

bankruptcy code - The informal name for title 11 of the United States Code (11 U.S.C. u00a7u00a7 101-1330), the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure.

bankruptcy court - A unit of district courts that has subject-matter jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases.

bankruptcy estate - All property which belongs to or is vested in the person made bankrupt at the commencement of the bankruptcy.

bankruptcy judge - A judicial officer of the United States district court who is the court official with decision-making power over federal bankruptcy cases.

bankruptcy petition - An official form that acts as a formal letter to a court asking that a person or company be declared bankrupt.

bankruptcy trustee - A private individual or corporation appointed in all Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases to represent the interests of the bankruptcy estate and the debtor's creditors.

bar - The legal profession as an institution.

bench trial - Trial without a jury in which a judge decides the facts.

beyond a reasonable doubt - A legal standard of proof required to validate a criminal conviction.

binding precedent - A legal rule or principle, established by an appellate court, that must be followed by lower courts within its jurisdiction.

brief - A written statement submitted by the lawyer for each side in a case that explains to the judge(s) why they should decide the case (or a particular part of a case) in favor of that lawyer's client.

burden of proof - The requirement of a party to produce evidence to establish the truth of facts needed to satisfy all the required legal elements of the dispute where other parties are presumed to be correct.

business bankruptcy - A bankruptcy case in which the debtor is a business or an individual involved in business and the debts are for business purposes.


canons of ethics - The standards of ethical conduct for legal professionals.

capital offense - A crime punishable by death, such as first degree murder, genocide, and treason.

case file - A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.

case law - Law based on precedents, or judicial decisions from previous cases, rather than constitutions, statutes, or regulations, using the detailed facts of a legal case that have been resolved by courts.

caseload - The number of cases handled by a judge or a court.

cause of action - A set of facts sufficient to justify the enforcement of a legal right against another party, or the legal theory upon which a plaintiff brings suit.

certiorari - The court process of seeking a higher court to perform judicial review of a decision of a lower court or government agency.

chambers - The offices of a judge and their staff.

chapter 11 - Referred to as a "reorganization" bankruptcy in which the debtor remains “in possession,” has the powers and duties of a trustee, may continue to operate its business and even borrow new money with court approval, while creditors whose rights are affected vote on a reorganization plan to be confirmed by the court if it gets the necessary votes and satisfies certain legal requirements.

chapter 13 trustee - A person appointed to administer a Chapter 13 case with responsibilities similar to those of a Chapter 7 trustee, with the addition of overseeing the debtor's plan, receiving payments from debtors, and disbursing plan payments to creditors.

chapter 15 - A chapter of the Bankruptcy Code dealing with insolvency cases involving debtors, assets, claimants, and other parties of interest involing more than than one country.

chapter 7 trustee - A person appointed in a Chapter 7 case to represent the interests of the bankruptcy estate and the creditors by reviewing the debtor's petition and schedules, liquidating the property of the estate, and making distributions to creditors, who may also bring actions against creditors or the debtor to recover property of the bankruptcy estate.

chapter 9 - A chapter of the Bankruptcy Code protecting financially distressed municipalities from creditors by creating a plan between the municipality (such as city, county, township, municipal utility, taxing district, and school district) and its creditors to resolve the outstanding debt.

charge - A formal accusation of criminal activity.

charge to the jury - The judge's instructions to the jury concerning the law that applies to the facts of the case on trial.

chief judge - The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of a court, decides cases, and is chosen by seniority.

circumstantial evidence - All evidence that is not direct evidence (such as eyewitness testimony).

civil case - A case that does not include a crime, usually between private parties or businesses.

claim - A demand for enforcement of a right provided by law, money, or property.

class action - A type of lawsuit where one of the parties is a group of people are represented collectively by a member or members of that group who have suffered a similar loss.

clerk of court - An officer appointed by the court to work with the chief judge in overseeing the court's administration, especially to assist in managing the flow of cases through the court and to maintain court records.

client security/protection fund - A special fund to help compensate clients who are defrauded by dishonest lawyers (for example when a lawyer fails to turn over client's money won in a lawsuit, or other money held in trust for the client), but cannot help clients in fee disputes, or pay for losses due to lawyer malpractice.

closing - In a real estate transaction, this is the final exchange in which the deed is delivered to the buyer, the title is transferred, and the agreed-on costs are paid.

code of professional responsibility - The rules of conduct or ethics that govern the legal profession.

collateral - Property that is promised as security for the satisfaction of a debt.

common law - The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States. See case law.

community service - A condition imposed by the court that requires an individual to remain at home except for certain approved activities such as work and medical appointments, which may include the use of electronic monitoring equipment (e.g. a transmitter attached to the wrist or the ankle) to help ensure that the person adheres to their obligation.

compensatory damages - Money awarded to reimburse actual costs, such as medical bills and lost wages, as well as things that are harder to measure, such as pain and suffering.

complainant - The party who complains or sues, or one who applies to the court for legal redress, that may also be called plaintiff or petitioner.

complaint - A written statement by the plaintiff stating the wrongs allegedly committed by the defendant.

conciliation - A form of alternative dispute resolution with no legal standing in which the parties meet with a conciliator separately and in person, to lower tensions, improve communications, and explore possible solutions.

concurrent sentence - Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other; e.g. two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in five years in prison.

confirmation - Approval of a plan of reorganization by a bankruptcy judge.

consecutive sentence - Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other; e.g. two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served consecutively, result in 13 years in prison.

consumer bankruptcy - A bankruptcy case filed to reduce or eliminate debts that are primarily consumer debts.

consumer debts - Debts incurred for personal, as opposed to business, needs.

contempt of court - Willful disobedience of a judge's command or of an official court order, an action that interferes with a judge's ability to administer justice, or that insults the dignity of the court such as disrespectful comments to the judge, which can result in financial sanctions or even jail time.

contingency fee - A fee arrangement in which the lawyer is paid out of any damages that are awarded. Typically, the lawyer gets between one-fourth and one-third. If no damages are awarded, there is no fee (but the client still may have to pay filing fees, costs for the lawyer's investigation of the case, etc.).

contingent claim - A claim that may be owed by the debtor under certain circumstances, e.g., where the debtor is a cosigner on another person's loan and that person fails to pay.

continuance - Decision by a judge to postpone trial until a later date.

contract - An agreement between two or more persons that creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.

conviction - A judgment of guilt against a person accused of a crime.

copyright - A person's right to prevent others from copying works that they havae written, authored, or otherwise created.

corporation - An independent entity created to conduct business or other activity.

counsel - Legal advice, a term used to refer to lawyers in a case.

count - The basis for bringing a case, including each cause of action in civil cases or charge in criminal cases, meaning lawsuits can involve multiple counts in which someone can be held liable.

counterclaim - A claim in response to the claims of another; i.e. when a plaintiff initiates a lawsuit and a defendant responds to the lawsuit with claims of their own against the plaintiff.

court costs - The expenses of prosecuting or defending a lawsuit, excluding attorney fees, which may be awarded to the successful party (and may be recoverable from the losing party) as reimbursement.

court reporter - A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court and produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.

creditor - A person to whom or business to which the debtor owes money or that claims to be owed money by the debtor.

crime - An act in violation of the penal laws of a state or the United States.

criminal justice system - The network of courts and tribunals which deal with criminal law and its enforcement.

cross-examine - Questioning of a witness by the attorney for the other side.


damages - Money paid by defendants to successful plaintiffs in civil cases to compensate the plaintiffs for their injuries.

debtor - A person who has filed a petition for relief under the Bankruptcy Code.

debtor's plan - A debtor's detailed description of how they propose to pay creditors' claims over a fixed period of time.

declaratory judgment - A binding court-issued judgment defining the legal relationship between parties and their rights in a matter before the court, thus resolving any uncertainty as to their legal obligations.

deed - A signed legal document that transfers ownership of an asset to a new owner.

default - Failure to do something required by law or contractual obligation.

default judgment - A judgment rendered because of the defendant's failure to take a certain action such as appear in court.

defendant - In a civil suit, the person complained against, in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.

defense table - The table where the defense lawyer sits with the defendant in the courtroom.

deposition - An out-of-court sworn oral testimony of a witness that can later be used as a written transcript during discovery or in court.

direct evidence - Evidence that supports a fact without an inference.

disbarment - Form of discipline of a lawyer resulting in the loss (often permanently) of their right to practice law.

discharge - The release of a legal obligation or duty, such as no longer being obliged to pay a debt.

dischargeable debt - A debt for which the Bankruptcy Code allows the debtor's personal liability to be eliminated.

discipline agency - A state agency responsible for investigating complaints about lawyers, after which they can be reprimanded, fined, and perhaps suspended or disbarred; however, lawyer discipline agencies cannot help clients recover fees paid to the lawyer, or make the lawyer pay for a loss the client has suffered because the lawyer made mistakes in handling a case.

discovery - Lawyers' examination, before trial, of facts and documents in possession of the opponents to help the lawyers prepare for trial.

dismissal - The termination of a criminal prosecution or lawsuit by either parties involved or a court's finding.

dismissal with prejudice - The termination of a criminal prosecution or lawsuit by a court's ruling preventing further lawsuits of the same type.

dismissal without prejudice - The termination of a criminal prosecution or lawsuit by a court's ruling allowing further lawsuits of the same type.

disposable income - Net income after taxes.

docket - A log containing brief entries of court proceedings.

domicile - Someone's principal and permanent home, to which they intend to return even if currently residing elsewhere.

double jeopardy - A procedural defense that prevents a defendant from being tried again on the same (or similar) charges following an acquittal or conviction in the same jurisdiction.

due process - The application of all legal rules in principles in place to respect all legal rights of a person in both criminal and civil law.


equal protection clause - Part of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which mandates that individuals in similar situations be treated equally by the law, without favoring one group or class over another.

equity - The residual value of assets after debts and liabilities have been settled.

evidence - Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case for one side or the other.

ex parte - A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.

exclusionary rule - Doctrine that says evidence obtained in violation of a person accused of a crime's constitutional or statutory rights is not admissible at trial.

exculpatory evidence - Evidence which tends to show the defendant's innocence.

executory contracts - Contracts that have not yet been fully performed or fully executed by both parties.

exempt assets - Property that a debtor is allowed to retain, free from the claims of creditors who do not have liens on the property.

exhibit - Physical evidence or documents that are presented in a court proceeding, such as contracts, weapons, and photographs.

expert witness - A witness with a specialized knowledge of a subject who is allowed to discuss an event in court even though they were not present.

expungement - The process by which the record of criminal conviction is destroyed or sealed.

extradition - The surrender of an accused criminal from one jurisdiction to another.


face sheet filing - A bankruptcy case filed either without schedules or with incomplete schedules listing few creditors and debts.

family farmer - A person engaging in organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production, managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on family labor.

federal public defender - Attorneys that handle criminal trials in U.S. Federal Court for alleged federal crimes or criminal cases involving state law violations in which a federal court can assert jurisdiction.

federal public defender organization - Entities of the U.S. Federal Government employing lawyers, investigators, paralegals, and support personnel to work on alleged federal crimes or criminal cases involving state law violations in which a federal court can assert jurisdiction.

federal question - Jurisdiction given to federal courts to hear civil cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties.

federal question jurisdiction - Jurisdiction given to federal courts in cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties.

felony - A crime carrying a penalty of more than a year in prison.

fiduciary - A person who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with one or more other parties, typically involving money or other asset management like a trustee.

file - To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court to enter into the files or records of a case.

filing fee - The fee required for filing various documents.

fraudulent transfer - An attempt to avoid debt by transferring money to another entity, typically a family member, other business, or a trust.

fresh start - The characterization of a debtor's status after bankruptcy, i.e., them being free of most debts as one purpose of the Bankruptcy Code.


grand jury - A body of 16-23 citizens who listen to evidence of criminal claim or accusations, which is presented by the prosecutors, and determine whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offense.

guardian - A person appointed by will or by law to assume responsibility for incompetent adults or minor children. If a parent dies, this will usually be the other parent. If both die, it probably will be a close relative.

guardian ad litem - Latin for guardian at law and refers to a person appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of a child or adult not able to look out for themselves during the course of legal proceedings.


habeas corpus - A fundamental right in the Constitution by which a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment to a court and request that the court order the custodian of the person, usually a prison official, to bring the prisoner to court, to determine whether the detention is lawful.

hearing - A proceeding (generally less formal than a trial) with definite issues of law or fact to be heard, used by courts and other legislative and administrative agencies.

hearsay - Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but learned about it through secondhand information such as another's statement, a newspaper, or a document, which is usually not admissible as evidence in court, but there are exceptions.

home confinement - A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to remain at home except for certain approved activities such as work and medical appointments. Home confinement may include the use of electronic monitoring equipment u2013 a transmitter attached to the wrist or the ankle u2013 to help ensure that the person stays at home as required.


in camera - Latin for in chambers and often means portions of the case being held before a judge in private, outside the presence of a jury, the public, or press.

in forma pauperis - Latin for in the manner for a pauper, permission for a person to sue without payment of court fees on claim of indigence or poverty, which is not a right but subject to a court's discretion.

inculpatory evidence - Evidence indicating that a defendant did commit the crime.

indictment - The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial, it is used primarily for felonies.

indigent - Needy or impoverished.

information - A formal accusation by a government attorney that the defendant committed a misdemeanor.

initial appearance - A court hearing where a defendant is first brought before a judge, usually after being arrested or charged with a crime, during which the defendant is informed of the charges against them, and the judge may set bail, appoint an attorney, or schedule future court dates.

injunction - A court order to refrain from certain actions threatening or invading another party's legal rights or to compel to doing certain actions.

insider (of corporate debtor) - A director, officer, or person in control of the debtor; a partnership in which the debtor is a general partner; a general partner of the debtor; or a relative of a general partner, director, officer, or person in control of the debtor.

insider (of individual debtor) - Any relative of the debtor or of a general partner of the debtor; partnership in which the debtor is a general partner; general partner of the debtor; or corporation of which the debtor is a director, officer, or person in control.

interrogatories - A form of discovery consisting of written questions to be answered in writing and under oath.

interview - A meeting with the police or prosecutor.

issue - The disputed point between parties in a lawsuit; or to send out officially, as in a court issuing an order.


Judicial Conference of the United States - The policy-making entity for the federal court system. A 27-judge body whose presiding officer is the Chief Justice of the United States.

joint administration - A court-approved mechanism under which two or more cases can be administered together. (Assuming no conflicts of interest, these separate businesses or individuals can pool their resources, hire the same professionals, etc.)

joint and several liability - A legal concept that says that each of the parties who are responsible for an injury are liable for the total amount of damages awarded in a lawsuit if the other parties responsible cannot pay.

joint petition - A legal document filed by two or more parties who are seeking a common objective or outcome in a legal matter

judge - Government official with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts. Judicial officers of the Supreme Court and the highest court in each state are called justices.

judgeship - The position of judge. By statute, Congress authorizes the number of judgeships for each district and appellate court.

judgment - The official decision of a court finally determining the respective rights and claims of the parties to a suit.

jurisdiction - The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.

jurisprudence - The study of law and the structure of the legal system.

juror - A person who is on the jury.

jury - The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact. See also grand jury.

jury instructions - A judge's explanation to the jury before it begins deliberations of the questions it must answer and the law governing the case. Each party suggests jury instructions to the judge, but the judge chooses the final wording.

jury pool - The group of people from which the actual jury is chosen. The jury pool is randomly selected from a source such as voter registration banks. Lawyers in the case choose the actual jurors from the jury pool through a process called voir dire.


law clerk (or staff attorney) - Assist judges with research and drafting of opinions.

lawsuit - A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty, resulting in harm to the plaintiff.

legal aid - Legal services that may be available to persons or organizations unable to afford such services in civil matters.

librarian - Meets the informational needs of the judges and lawyers.

lien - A form of security interest granted over an item of property designed to secure payment of a debt or performance of an obligation.

liquidated claim - A creditor's claim for a fixed amount of money.

liquidation - The sale of a debtor's property with the proceeds to be used for the benefit of creditors.

litigation - A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.

living will - Also known as a medical directive or advance directive. A written document that states a person's wishes regarding life-support or other medical treatment in certain circumstances, usually when death is imminent.


magistrate - Judicial officer exercising some of the functions of a judge. It also refers in a general way to a judge.

maintenance - In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage. Also called alimony.

mediation - A structured and interactive dispute resolution method where an impartial third party neutrally assists disputing parties in resolving conflict through the use of specialized communication and negotiation techniques.

mental health treatment - Special condition the court imposes to require an individual to undergo evaluation and treatment for a mental disorder. Treatment may include psychiatric, psychological, and sex offense-specific evaluations, inpatient or outpatient counseling, and medication.

misdemeanor - An offense punishable by one year of imprisonment or less.

mistrial - An invalid trial caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again, beginning with the selection of a new jury.

moot - Not subject to a court ruling because the controversy has not actually arisen, or has ended

motion - A request made to a court or judge which seeks a ruling or order in favor of the applicant. Attempt to have a limited issue heard by the court. Motions can be filed before, during, and after trial.

motion in limine - A pretrial motion requesting the court to prohibit the other side from presenting, or even referring to, evidence on matters said to be so highly prejudicial that no steps taken by the judge can prevent the jury from being unduly influenced.

motion to dismiss - A formal request for a court to dismiss a case when a party believes that the complaint is legally invalid for a variety of reasons.

motion to lift the automatic stay - A request by a creditor to allow the creditor to take action against the debtor or the debtor's property that would otherwise be prohibited by the automatic stay.


negligence - Failure to use care which a reasonable and prudent person would use under similar circumstances.

no-asset case - A Chapter 7 case in which there are no assets available to satisfy any portion of the creditors' unsecured claims.

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

nolo contendere - No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

nondischargeable debt - A debt that cannot be eliminated in bankruptcy.

nonexempt assets - Property of a debtor that can be liquidated to satisfy claims of creditors.

notary public - A person who has been authorized by a state to administer oaths or certify documents.


oath - A promise to tell the truth.

objection - A protest by an attorney challenging a statement or question made at trial, where the judge must decide whether to allow it or not.

objection to dischargeability - A trustee's or creditor's objection to the debtor being released from personal liability for certain dischargeable debts.

objection to exemptions - A trustee's or creditor's objection to the debtor's attempt to claim certain property as exempt from liquidation by the trustee to creditors.

opinion - A court's written explanation of its decision.

oral argument - An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court in an appeal and also to answer the judges' questions.


panel - In appellate cases, a group of judges (usually three) assigned to decide the case; 2. In the jury selection process, the group of potential jurors; 3. The list of attorneys who are both available and qualified to serve as court-appointed counsel for person accused of a crimes who cannot afford their own counsel.

paralegal - A person, usually with special training but who has not earned a law degree, who works under the supervision of a lawyer. Also called a legal assistant.

parties - Plaintiffs and defendants (petitioners and respondents) to lawsuits, also known as appellants and appellees in appeals, and their lawyers.

party in interest - A party who has standing to be heard by the court in a matter to be decided in the bankruptcy case. The debtor, U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator, case trustee, and creditors are parties in interest for most matters.

peremptory challenge - A district court may grant each side in a civil or criminal trial the right to exclude a certain number of prospective jurors without cause or giving a reason.

petit jury (or trial jury) - A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons. Federal civil juries consist of six persons.

petition - A written application directed to some individual, official, legislative body, or court, requesting judicial action of some character, such as bankrupcty.

petition preparer - A business not authorized to practice law that prepares bankruptcy petitions.

petitioner - In some states or types of cases, the person filing a lawsuit or action in a court. Also, the person who appeals the judgment of a lower court.

petty offense - A federal misdemeanor punishable by six months or less in prison.

plaintiff - A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.

plan - A debtor's detailed description of how the debtor proposes to pay creditors' claims over a fixed period of time.

plea - The defendant's statement as an answer to the charges made in the indictment or information. A plea can be guilty, not guilty, or where permitted nolo contendere.

plea deal (or plea bargain or agreement) - Agreement between the defendant and prosecutor where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a concession by the prosecutor. It may include lesser charges, a dismissal of charges, or the prosecutor's recommendation to the judge of a more lenient sentence.

pleadings - Written statements filed with the court that describe a party's legal or factual assertions about the case.

postpetition transfer - A transfer of the debtor's property made after the commencement of the case.

prebankruptcy planning - The arrangement (or rearrangement) of a debtor's property to allow the debtor to take maximum advantage of exemptions. (Prebankruptcy planning typically includes converting nonexempt assets into exempt assets.)

precedent - A court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case, unless a party can show that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way. Some precedent is binding, meaning that it must be followed. Other precedents need not be followed by the court but can be considered influential.

preferential debt payment - A debt payment made to a creditor in the 90-day period before a debtor files bankruptcy (or within one year if the creditor was an insider) that gives the creditor more than the creditor would receive in the debtor's chapter 7 case.

preliminary hearing - A hearing where the judge decides whether there is enough evidence to require the defendant to go to trial. Preliminary hearings do not require the same rules as trials. For example, hearsay is often admissible during the preliminary hearing but not at trial.

presentence report - A report prepared by a court's probation officer, after a person has been convicted of an offense, summarizing for the court the background information needed to determine the appropriate sentence.

pretrial conference - A meeting of the judge and lawyers to discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, to review evidence and witnesses, to set a timetable, and to discuss the settlement of the case.

pretrial services - A function of the federal courts that takes place at the very start of the criminal justice process, after a person has been arrested and charged with a federal crime and before he or she goes to trial. Pretrial services officers focus on investigating the backgrounds of these persons to help the court determine whether to release or detain them while they await trial. The decision is based on whether these individuals are likely to flee or pose a threat to the community. If the court orders release, a pretrial services officer supervises the person in the community until he or she returns to court.

priority - The Bankruptcy Code's statutory ranking of unsecured claims that determines the order in which unsecured claims will be paid if there is not enough money to pay all unsecured claims in full.

priority claim - An unsecured claim that is entitled to be paid ahead of other unsecured claims that are not entitled to priority status. Priority refers to the order in which these unsecured claims are to be paid.

pro bono - Latin for for good, referring to work done by a lawyer without compensation.

pro se - Latin for on behalf of oneself, referring to representing oneself in court without a lawyer.

pro tem - Temporary.

probable cause - An amount of suspicion leading one to believe certain facts are probably true. The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause for the issuance of an arrest or search warrant.

probate - Court proceeding by which a will is proved valid or invalid. Term used to mean all proceedings pertaining to the administration of estates such as the process by which assets are gathered; applied to pay debts, taxes, and expenses of administration; and distributed to those designated as beneficiaries in the will.

probate court - The court with authority to supervise estate administration.

probation - Sentencing option in the federal courts. With probation, instead of sending an individual to prison, the court releases the person to the community and orders him or her to complete a period of supervision monitored by a U.S. probation officer and to abide by certain conditions.

probation officer - Officers of the probation office of a court. Probation officer duties include conducting presentence investigations, preparing presentence reports on convicted defendants, and supervising released defendants.

procedure - The rules for conducting a lawsuit; there are rules of civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure.

proof of claim - A written statement describing the reason a debtor owes a creditor money, which typically sets forth the amount of money owed. (There is an official form for this purpose.)

property of the estate - All legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case.

prosecute - To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government

prosecutor - A trial lawyer representing the government in a criminal case and the interests of the state in civil matters. In criminal cases, the prosecutor has the responsibility of deciding who and when to prosecute.

public defender - Government lawyer who provides free legal defense services to a person accused of a crime who reasonably cannot afford them.


reaffirmation agreement - An agreement by a debtor to continue paying a dischargeable debt after the bankruptcy, usually for the purpose of keeping collateral or mortgaged property that would otherwise be subject to repossession.

reasonable doubt - Generally in a criminal case, an accused person is entitled to acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, his or her guilt has not been proved beyond any reasonable uncertainty.

record - A written account of all the acts and proceedings in a lawsuit.

redemption - Regaining ownership or possession of something by paying a sum of money or fulfilling certain conditions.

remand - Sending a case back to be reconsidered by another court, or imprisoning someone until they go to trial.

reply - The response by a party to charges raised in a pleading by the other party.

reporter - Makes a record of court proceedings, prepares a transcript, and publishes the court's opinions or decisions.

respondent - The person against whom an appeal is taken.

retainer - A term sometimes used to describe the fee which the client pays to retain the attorney to act for them.

reverse - The act of a court setting aside the decision of a lower court. A reversal is often accompanied by a remand to the lower court for further proceedings.

rules of evidence - Standards governing whether evidence in a civil or criminal case is admissible.


sanction - A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.

schedules - Lists submitted by the debtor along with the petition (or shortly thereafter) showing the debtor's assets, liabilities, and other financial information. (There are official forms a debtor must use.)

search warrant - Orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence. Search warrants require probable cause in order to be issued.

secured creditor - An individual or business that holds a claim against the debtor that is secured by a lien on property of the estate. The property subject to the lien is the secured creditor's collateral.

secured debt - Debt backed by a mortgage, pledge of collateral, or other lien; debt for which the creditor has the right to pursue specific pledged property upon default. Examples include home mortgages, auto loans and tax liens.

self help - A term sometimes used to describe when a person handles a legal matter on their own, without using a lawyer.

senior judge - A federal judge who, after attaining the requisite age and length of judicial experience, takes senior status, thus creating a vacancy among a court's active judges. A senior judge retains the judicial office and may cut back his or her workload by as much as 75 percent, but many opt to keep a larger caseload.

sentence - The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime. Federal courts look to the United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines when deciding the proper punishment for a given crime.

sentencing guidelines - A set of rules and principles established by the United States Sentencing Commission that trial judges use to determine the sentence for a convicted defendant.

sequester - To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.

service of process - The delivery of writs or summonses to the appropriate party.

settlement - An agreement that ends a dispute and results in the voluntary dismissal of any related litigation which often involve the payment of compensation by one party in at least partial satisfaction of the other party's claims, but usually do not include the admission of fault.

sidebar - A conference between the judge and lawyers held out of earshot of the jury and spectators.

small business case - A special type of chapter 11 case in which there is no creditors' committee (or the creditors' committee is deemed inactive by the court) and in which the debtor is subject to more oversight by the U.S. trustee than other chapter 11 debtors. The Bankruptcy Code contains certain provisions designed to reduce the time a small business debtor is in bankruptcy.

standing - The legal right to bring a lawsuit. Only a person with something at stake has standing to bring a lawsuit.

statement - An official oral or written report or declaration.

statement of financial affairs - A series of questions the debtor must answer in writing concerning sources of income, transfers of property, lawsuits by creditors, etc. (There is an official form a debtor must use.)

statement of intention - A declaration made by a chapter 7 debtor concerning plans for dealing with consumer debts that are secured by property of the estate.

statute - A law passed by a legislature.

statute of limitations - A law that sets the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated.

stay - A temporary pause or suspension of a judicial proceeding, usually designed to terminate upon the completion of specified event (e.g., a judicial decision in a separate case or the end of a government shutdown) or after a specific period of time.

stipulation - An agreement or condition, usually a fact, promise, or provision in a contract agreed by two parties, which is only binding if it complies with an applicable statute or rule of court.

subordination - The act or process by which a person's rights or claims are ranked below those of others.

subpoena - A command to a witness to appear and give testimony.

subpoena duces tecum - A command to a witness to produce documents.

summary judgment - A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the facts of the case, and one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

summons - An official document used to notify a person that they're being sued.


temporary restraining order - Prohibits a person from an action that is likely to cause irreparable harm. This differs from an injunction in that it may be granted immediately, without notice to the opposing party, and without a hearing. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held.

testify - Answer questions in court.

testimony - Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.

toll - See statute of limitations.

tort - A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person causing them harm or loss and leading to legal liability.

transcript - A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial, or during some other formal conversation, such as a hearing or oral deposition

transfer - Any mode or means by which a debtor disposes of or parts with his/her property.

trust - A legal device used to manage real or personal property, established by one person for the benefit of another.

trustee - The representative of the bankruptcy estate who exercises statutory powers, principally for the benefit of the unsecured creditors, under the general supervision of the court and the direct supervision of the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator. The trustee is a private individual or corporation appointed in all chapter 7, chapter 12, and chapter 13 cases, and some chapter 11 cases, with slightly different responsibilities in each.

typing service - A business not authorized to practice law that prepares bankruptcy petitions.


U.S. Attorney - A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute and defend cases for the federal government.

U.S. marshal (or bailiff) - A legal officer who enforces the rules of behavior in courtrooms.

U.S. trustee - An officer of the U.S. Department of Justice responsible for supervising the administration of bankruptcy cases, estates, and trustees; monitoring plans and disclosure statements; monitoring creditors' committees; monitoring fee applications; and performing other statutory duties.

undersecured claim - A debt secured by property that is worth less than the amount of the debt.

undue hardship - Special or specified situations that grant individuals or entities partial or complete exemption from fulfilling a legal obligation, with the goal of preventing an unjust or disproportionate burden or hindrance.

unlawful detainer action - A lawsuit brought by a landlord against a tenant to evict the tenant from rental property, usually for failing to pay rent.

unliquidated claim - A claim for which a specific value has not been determined.

unscheduled debt - A debt that should have been listed by the debtor in the schedules filed with the court but was not. (Depending on the circumstances, an unscheduled debt may or may not be discharged.)

unsecured claim - A claim or debt for which a creditor holds no special assurance of payment, such as a mortgage or lien; a debt for which credit was extended based solely upon the creditor's assessment of the debtor's future ability to pay.

uphold - To defend and maintain the principle of law, or to say that an already-made court decision is correct.


venue - The geographical location in which a case is tried.

verdict - The decision of a petit jury or a judge.

victim advocate - Those who support and assist the victims of a crime.

voir dire - Jury selection process of questioning prospective jurors, to ascertain their qualifications and determine any basis for challenge.

voluntary transfer - A transfer of a debtor's property with the debtor's consent.


Workers' compensation - A form of insurance that provides coverage for employment-related injuries and occupational diseases, providing wage replacement and medical benefits to employees.

wage garnishment - A nonbankruptcy legal proceeding whereby a plaintiff or creditor seeks to subject to his or her claim the future wages of a debtor. In other words, the creditor seeks to have part of the debtor's future wages paid to the creditor for a debt owed to the creditor.

warrant - An arrest warrant is a written order directing the arrest of a party. A search warrant orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence. Search warrants require probable cause in order to be issued.

will - A legal declaration that disposes of a person's property when that person dies.

witness - A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

words and phrases legally defined - A set of books in dictionary form which lists judicial determinations of a word or phrase.

writ - A formal written command, issued from the court, requiring the performance of a specific act.

writ of execution - An order of the court evidencing debt of one party to another and commanding the court officer to take property in satisfaction of the debt.

writ of garnishment - An order of the court whereby property, money, or credits in the possession of another person may be seized and applied to pay a debtor's debt. It is used as an incident to or auxiliary of a judgment rendered in a principal action.

wrongful discharge - When an employee is fired for reasons that are not legitimate, typically either because they are unlawful or because they violate the terms of an employment contract.