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This content was last updated on 4/25/2024

Common Legal Terms

Action. Also called a case or lawsuit. A civil or criminal proceeding. 

Adjudication. A decision or sentence imposed by a judge. 

Affidavit. Any written document in which the signer swears under oath before a notary public or someone authorized to take oaths that the statements in the document are true. 

Affirmation. Declaring something to be true under the penalty of perjury by a person who will not take an oath for religious or other reasons. 

Allegation. A statement claimed as true by a party that must be proved by or supported with evidence in the case. 

Answer. A defendant’s written response to the plaintiff’s initial court filing (the complaint or petition) that is filed with the court. A copy is sent to the plaintiff or plaintiff’s attorney. 

Appeal. Asking a higher court to review and change the decision or sentence of a trial court because the lower court made an error. 

Attachment. Seizing a person’s property or assets to hold it to pay or satisfy a judgment. A lien (see definition) may be filed against the property. 

Bailiff. Usually a uniformed deputy sheriff or officer in a courthouse to control security. 

Brief. A document prepared by an attorney or party and filed with the court. It usually contains facts and the laws (cases, statutes, regulations, etc.) that support one’s position. 

Case. A lawsuit, action or right to sue (as in “Do I have a case?”) or a written decision in another case that is used as rule or law for similar legal issues. 

Circuit Court. A court considered the main trial court that hears civil matters involving more than $5,000. It decides cases of criminal matters (such as capital offenses and felonies) and civil matters (such as divorce, adoption, termination of parental rights, land disputes, contested wills and personal injury). 

Circuit Court Clerk. The elected official who maintains the official court records for Circuit Court and District Court. 

Civil. A court proceeding that is not criminal, such as hearings on family disputes, wills, emergency protective orders (EPOs) and domestic violence orders (DVOs).

Complaint. A legal document that tells the court what you want and is served with a summons on the defendant to begin the case. 

Contempt of Court. A finding that someone disobeyed a court order. Can also mean disrupting court (being loud or disrespectful). 

Count. The different parts of a complaint, each of which is a distinct claim. 

Counterclaim. A claim by the opposing party against the person who filed the original suit, usually trying to claim the person who brought the lawsuit is wholly or partially at fault. 

Court Costs. Expenses in prosecuting or defending a case in court. Usually do not include attorneys’ fees. 

Cross-Examination. Questioning by a party or the attorney of a party of a witness for the other side. 

Custodial Parent. The parent who has the legal right to determine the primary residence of the child. 

Custody. In family law, the right to make decisions about the child. Parents may ask for a custody arrangement that they believe is in the best interest of their child. Legal custody refers to a parent’s legal right to take part in important decisions, such as health care and education. Residential custody refers to which parent the child will live with most of the time. Legal custody to both parents is called joint or shared. When only one parent gets legal custody, it’s called sole custody. 

Damages. In a lawsuit, the harm caused to the one who is injured. It is also the money a party claims or receives as compensation for loss or injury. 

Default. To fail to respond or answer to the plaintiff’s claims by filing the required court document, such as an Answer. 

Defendant. In civil cases, the person against whom a lawsuit is filed. In criminal cases, the person who is arrested and charged with a crime. 

Deposition. Testimony of a witness taken, given under oath and outside the courtroom, in response to questions by one of the parties or his/her attorney. It is recorded word for word. 

Dismissal. A judge’s decision to end the case. 

Dismissed Without Prejudice. A judge’s decision to end the case which permits the case to be renewed later. A case cannot be renewed if it is dismissed “with prejudice.”

Direct Examination. Questions to a witness by the party who introduced the witness. 

District Court. The court of limited jurisdiction that handles juvenile matters, city and county ordinances, misdemeanors, violations, traffic offenses, probate of wills, arraignments, felony probable cause hearings, civil cases involving $5,000 or less, voluntary and involuntary mental commitments and cases relating to domestic violence and abuse. Small claims court is part of District Court. 

Divorce. The legal end of a marriage. 

Docket. A list of cases scheduled to be heard in court on a specific day or week. 

Docket Number. A unique number assigned to a case by the circuit court clerk. It must be used on all future papers filed in the court case. 

Drug Court. A program that allows eligible participants to complete a substance-abuse treatment program supervised by a judge. 

Eviction. Legally forcing a tenant out of rented property. 

Evidence. Testimony, documents or objects presented at a trial to prove a fact. 

Exhibit. Papers, documents or other material objects received by the court and offered as evidence during a trial or hearing. Each piece of evidence is an exhibit. 

Ex Parte. Done for, or at the request of, only one side in a case without prior notice to the other side. 

Family Court. A court that hears civil cases involving family issues, such as divorce, custody, parental rights, child support and adoption. 

Filing. Giving the circuit court clerk legal papers that become part of the case file. Can also refer to a particular document in the court file. 

Financial Affidavit. A sworn statement of income, expenses, property (called assets) and debts (called liabilities). 

Finding. The court’s decision or jury’s decision on issues of fact. 

Foreclosure. A legal action where a creditor with a claim on property forces a sale of the property to collect a debt. Usually seen when a homeowner falls behind on mortgage payments. 

Garnishment. A court order to collect money or property. For example, a garnishment may be issued to an employer to pay part of an employee’s wages to someone else to pay a debt or judgment. 

Guardian. A person who has the power and duty to take care of the rights and property of another person who is considered incapable of taking care of his or her personal affairs. 

Guardian ad Litem (GAL). An attorney appointed by the court to represent another who is unable to represent himself/herself in a court case, such as a child, an incarcerated individual or someone who is mentally ill. A GAL may also represent the interest in real estate of persons unborn or unascertainable. 

Indigent. Someone without enough money to support either himself/herself or family with the necessities of life and therefore cannot afford to pay certain fees required by the court. 

In Forma Pauperis. A party to a lawsuit can get court costs and fees waived by filing a paper that shows they have no money to pay. 

Injunctions. Court orders requiring or forbidding a specific act. 

Interrogatory. Written questions sent by one party to another as part of discovery. They must be answered in writing under oath within a specified time (usually 30 days). 

Judgment. A court decision. Also called a decree or an order. 

Jurisdiction. The authority of a court to hear and decide a case. The court must be able to exercise authority over the people involved and over the type of case. 

Legal Aid. Legal representatives in certain civil cases provided for free or at a reduced cost for eligible low-income individuals. There is no right to an attorney in most civil matters. In criminal matters, most defendants have a right to an attorney and a public advocate or public defender is appointed for those who cannot afford an attorney. 

Lien. A charge, hold or claim upon another’s property for a debt. 

Litigant. A party to a case. 

Litigation. A legal contest in court. 

Mediation. A way parties can resolve their dispute without going to court. A neutral third party (the mediator) meets with the parties to help them find and agree upon a solution. 

Modification. A change to an existing order or judgment. A request to change a prior order is a “motion to modify.” It requires some reason for the change, such as when a spouse paying child support asks to modify the amount paid because of a change in circumstances (such as income) since the original order was made. 

Motion. A formal request to the court in a case. An oral motion may be made during a hearing or trial, but motions are usually in writing and filed with the Office of Circuit Court Clerk. Often motions have a “memorandum” filed with them that explains the legal reasons why the court should grant the motion. The person who filed the motion is called the movant or moving party. 

Notarize. To have a notary public establish the authenticity of the signature on a legal document by seeing the person sign. 

Oath. To swear/affirm to the truth of a statement/document. 

Objection. A statement opposing specific testimony or admission of evidence for a legal reason. 

Order. A decision by the court usually directing a party to do or not do some act, such as an order to exclude certain evidence. 

Overrule. The court’s denial of a motion or objection requested by a party. Can also refer to an appellate court’s decision to overturn or set aside precedent. 

Party. A person or legal entity that is named as a plaintiff or defendant on legal papers. 

Paternity. A court action to determine the identity of the father of a child 

Perjury. Making false statements under oath. This is a criminal offense 

Petition. A formal request, usually written, to a court which starts a special proceeding. Similar to a complaint. 

Plaintiff. The person or entity who sues or starts a civil case, also called the petitioner or the complainant. 

Pleadings. Certain documents (such as complaints, answers, motions, memoranda) filed under court rules with the court by the parties in a civil or criminal case. 

Probate. The legal process following a person’s death that includes determining the validity of the will and distribution of the deceased person’s property with a will or, if no will, according to state law. 

Pro Se. A Latin phrase meaning “for oneself.” Representing oneself in any kind of case. 

Protective Order. A court order issued by a judge to protect a person’s family or household member. 

Respondent. Another word for defendant. The person or entity that must respond to a lawsuit. 

Restitution. Money ordered to be paid by the defendant to reimburse someone for property loss or harm caused by the defendant’s actions. Often a condition of probation. Restraining Order. A court order directing a person not to do something, such as contact another person. 

Service. The legal method for giving a copy of the court papers being filed to other parties in a case. 

Settlement. An agreement reached between the parties to resolve the dispute. 

Small Claims. Civil actions to recover damages, or money, up to $2,500. The rules of evidence are relaxed and people often do not have an attorney. To access the Small Claims Handbook provided by Kentucky courts, click here

Statute. Laws enacted by the legislature or the Executive Branch. 

Statute of Limitations. A certain amount of time allowed by law for starting a case. The time frames differ by type of case and by state. 

Subpoena. A court’s order to appear in court to testify as a witness, produce evidence or both. Failure to comply may be punished as contempt of court 

Summons. A legal paper that is used to start a civil case, get jurisdiction over a party and inform the defendant of the lawsuit. 

Sustain. To agree with or rule in favor of the party’s request. 

Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). An order that tells one person to stop doing something requested by the party. Shortly after the TRO is issued, a second hearing is held where the person being restrained can tell his or her side and the judge will decide whether or not to make the TRO permanent. 

Testimony. Statements made by a witness or party under oath. 

Transcript. The official written record of everything that was said at a court proceeding, hearing or deposition. 

Vacate. To cancel or rescind a court order. 

Venue. The court location appropriate for the case. 

Witness. A person who testifies to what he or she saw, heard or did.


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