Common Legal Terminology

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Understanding legal terminology is crucial for navigating the legal system effectively. Whether you’re involved in a legal dispute, signing a contract, or simply trying to understand your rights, knowing these common legal terms can be incredibly beneficial. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of essential legal terms, organised under relevant headings for clarity.

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General Legal Terms


The plaintiff is the person or party who initiates a lawsuit by filing a complaint with the court. They are seeking a legal remedy for damages caused by the defendant.


The defendant is the individual, company, or institution being sued or accused in a court of law. The defendant responds to the plaintiff’s complaint and defends against the allegations.


Litigation refers to the process of taking legal action or resolving disputes through the court system. It involves various stages, including pleadings, discovery, trial, and possibly appeal.


A settlement is an agreement reached between parties in a lawsuit before the court makes a final decision. Settlements often involve the defendant agreeing to compensate the plaintiff in exchange for dropping the case.

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Court Procedures


A complaint is a formal legal document filed by the plaintiff that initiates a lawsuit. It outlines the plaintiff’s allegations and the legal basis for the claim.


An answer is a formal written response from the defendant to the plaintiff’s complaint. It addresses each allegation and may include defenses and counterclaims.


Discovery is the pre-trial phase in which both parties exchange information, documents, and evidence relevant to the case. This process includes depositions, interrogatories, and requests for production of documents.


A deposition is an out-of-court testimony given under oath by a witness or party involved in the case. It is part of the discovery process and can be used as evidence during the trial.

Criminal Law


A felony is a serious crime, typically punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death. Examples include murder, rape, and armed robbery.


A misdemeanor is a less serious crime, punishable by less than one year in jail or by fines. Examples include petty theft, vandalism, and simple assault.


Bail is a sum of money or property deposited or pledged to the court to secure the release of a defendant from jail, ensuring their appearance at future court proceedings.

Plea Bargain

A plea bargain is an agreement between the defendant and prosecutor where the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a reduced sentence or dismissal of certain charges.

Civil Law


A tort is a civil wrong or breach of duty, other than a breach of contract, that causes harm or injury to another person. Common torts include negligence, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.


A contract is a legally binding agreement between two or more parties. It can be written or oral and involves an offer, acceptance, consideration, and mutual intent to be bound.

Breach of Contract

A breach of contract occurs when one party fails to fulfill their obligations under the contract terms, leading to potential legal action by the other party.


Damages refer to monetary compensation awarded to a party who has suffered loss or injury due to another party’s wrongful act or breach of contract. They can be compensatory, punitive, or nominal.

Family Law


Alimony, also known as spousal support, is financial support paid by one ex-spouse to the other after a divorce. It aims to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage.

Child Custody

Child custody refers to the legal determination of which parent or guardian will be responsible for the care and decision-making of a child after a divorce or separation.

Prenuptial Agreement

A prenuptial agreement is a contract entered into by a couple before marriage, outlining the division of assets and financial responsibilities in the event of divorce or death.


Adoption is the legal process by which a person becomes the legal parent of a child who is not biologically their own. It involves a court procedure to transfer parental rights and responsibilities.

Property Law


A deed is a legal document that transfers ownership of real property from one party to another. It must be executed and delivered to be effective.


A mortgage is a loan secured by the collateral of real estate property, which the borrower is obliged to pay back with a predetermined set of payments.


A lease is a contract granting the use or occupation of property during a specified period in exchange for a specified rent.


An easement is a legal right to use another person’s land for a specific purpose, such as for a driveway or utility line.


Familiarity with these legal terms can empower you to better understand and navigate legal documents and proceedings. Whether dealing with criminal charges, civil disputes, or family law matters, having a grasp of these terms will help you communicate more effectively with legal professionals and make informed decisions.

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