The Bare Minimum Legal Terms That Everyone Should Know

The Bare Minimum Legal Terms That Everyone Should Know
Photo: MR.Yanukit, Shutterstock

Lawyers make an assload of money because legal stuff is complicated. They learn our legal system so that we don’t have to. Still, there are a few key terms that everyone should know — and don’t need a pricy degree to learn — for when you inevitably have to manoeuvre our confusing legal system.

What is a legal “action”?

An action is a lawsuit wherein a party or parties sue each other. That’s it. In legalese, you’ll hear a lot of words that simply mean the same thing as simpler ones. This is one of those.

What is an “affidavit”?

An affidavit is a written statement made under oath that is signed by a notary or someone else who is authorised to take oaths. These are important because if anything contained within an affidavit turns out not to be true, the person who made the oath can be charged with perjury.

Who is “counsel,” exactly?

Counsel can refer to your lawyer or to the advice they give you. You’ll hear it used interchangeably with “lawyer” and “attorney.”

What are “damages”?

Damages are given to someone who has suffered some type of injury or loss as a result of an action by someone else. Compensatory damages are awarded for injury or financial loss and punitive damages are given to penalise a defendant for their actions.

What is a “grand jury”?

A grand jury is made up of regular people — between 16 and 23 of them — who listen to the prosecution and the defence, look at evidence, and then determine if someone on trial is guilty or innocent of the crimes they’re charged with.

What is an “injunction”?

This is a court order forcing a party to act or refrain from doing a certain action, under the threat of penalties. For example, let’s say you’re going through a messy divorce, and you and your spouse own a business together. Your spouse might file an injunction to keep you from making unilateral decisions or selling the company from under them.

What is a “liability”?

In the legal world, liability is comparable to responsibility. It’s your legal responsibility for your actions. If you don’t meet your responsibilities under the law, you are vulnerable to actions for any resulting damages.

What is legal “negligence”?

Negligence can be a little subjective, but largely, it refers to a failure to act in a way “a reasonable or prudent person” would in the same exact situation. It’s not an intentional wrong, but can still cause harm — and result in an action.

What is legal “nonfeasance”?

This word refers to the failure to act when it’s legally required that you act. Imagine, say, a doctor watching someone bleed out without offering first aid because they can’t be bothered.

What is the “standard of proof”?

A standard of proof is a degree of evidence required to even charge a defendant in a court case. The standard ranges from preponderance of evidence to clear and convincing and beyond a reasonable doubt, with beyond a reasonable doubt being the highest standard of proof that must be met to get a criminal conviction.

What is “pro bono” work?

This term refers to when a lawyer (or counsel) works with a client free of charge.

What is “pro se”?

This, like pro bono, is a latin phrase. (A lot of legalese phrases are.) This one refers to your right to defend yourself in court. You still probably shouldn’t do that, even after reading this whole glossary. Again, deep knowledge of the law is why lawyers make the big bucks.

What is “testimony,” exactly?

This is like an affidavit, but it’s spoken, not written. The similarity, though, is that the person giving testimony still has to tell the truth or risk being charged with perjury.

What is a legal “verdict”?

This is the final decision reached by a jury and it determines whether a defendant is guilty or innocent. A verdict can’t be overturned once the presiding judge accepts it, unless an appeal is granted.

What is a “warrant”?

A warrant is a document issued by a court that grants the police the necessary permission to arrest a person or search their property. Before you comply with an officer, always make sure they have a warrant. Anything they uncover without one will be dismissed in court if you can prove they didn’t have a warrant.

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