Law Glossary: The top law terms you need to know

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Legal terms that are used in everyday language are often misunderstood and misused. In order to simplify matters, below you will find a glossary of the 20 top legal terms we think that you should know.  

It is worth noting that you will need to be familiar with different terms depending on what field of law you enter in to, but these are the quick law terms that will apply to almost every field.

For example, if you begin a career as a criminal defense attorney you will need to know terms specifically relating to criminal law. Alternatively, corporate lawyers will need to understand contractual terms and the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

The glossary below, provides you with the top legal terms to get you started.  

1.   Bail - The cash payment required to obtain the release of an accused from law enforcement custody while his/her case progressives.

2.   Case - A controversy to be decided in a court of justice.

3.   Cause of action – This legal term is often abbreviated to ‘Action’. Examples include the reason for which a plaintiff/claimant (see below) files a lawsuit against an individual or a judicial remedy to enforce or protect a right.

4.   Common law - Legal rules, principles, and usage that rest upon court decisions rather than upon statutes or other written declarations.

5.   Credibility – When an individual is ‘credible’ they are believable. In other words, you trust their side of the story in a case. On the other hand, when an individual is ‘incredible’, in a courtroom this means the opposite, not believable/trustworthy.

6.   Contract – An agreement between two or more parties to do or refrain from a lawful thing. Most commonly this is written.

7.   Damage– In legal terms, the word ‘damage’ refers to the cost/harm experienced from illegal invasion of a legal right.

8.   Damages - Compensation imposed by the law to one who has suffered harm due to another's wrongdoing. This can be compensatory or punitive depending on the nature of the case.

9.   Depose - When an individual testifies (makes a statement) under oath at a Trial or in an affidavit (a written statement).

10. Defendant - An individual that is defending themselves in a courtroom. The Defendant is the person accused of illegal behaviour/unlawful activity.

11. Felony – A serious crime in the eyes of the law. For example, felonies include arson, rape, perjury and homicide. In most countries they are punishable by prison, but also can be punishable by the death sentence.

12. Liability - When an individual is ‘liable’, they are responsible/at fault in a law case.

13. Litigation – the process of taking legal action. A litigator is a lawyer who specializes in managing legal action against people and organizations.

14. Misdemeanor - a non-indictable offence (minor wrongdoing), regarded in the US (and formerly in the UK) as less serious than a felony.

15. Malpractice – Improper, illegal or negligent (see below) behaviour in a professional context. For example, medical malpractice is the failure of a doctor/medical professional to provide the correct duty of care to his/her patient, often resulting in the injury of the plaintiff/claimant.

16. Negligence – When ‘Individual A’ has a duty to ‘Individual B’ and breaks this duty, resulting in the cause of injury and suffering to ‘Individual B’. Negligence can appear in many different scenarios, from injury claims to failure to present the correct facts in businesses cases.

17. Plaintiff/Claimant - An individual who brings a court case. They seek to recover damages for the illegal behaviour executed by the defendant.

18. Statute - A written law passed by Congress or another legislative body.

19. Tort - From the French word ‘wrong’. A wrongful or illegal act that inflicts injury on another individual.

20. Warrant - A court order authorizing law enforcement officers to make an arrest or conduct a search.
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