A beginner's guide to legal drama lingo

She's being subpoenaed? He's pleading the what now? Here's our handy guide to all that legal jargon you need to get through your new favourite shows...

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A beginner's guide to legal drama lingo
Written By
Ellie Walker-Arnott

Fancy dipping your toe into the world of legal dramas? 

The Good Wife, Scandal, Suits and co can be a little daunting. Those hotshot lawyer types (especially those across the pond) throw around courtroom terminology like we've all got degrees in law or something.

Sure, we might understand what they are saying most of the time. But you don’t want to be watching Alicia Florrick stride out of court, her moral high ground intact, and not be 100% sure why she won.

And that’s where our handy legal glossary comes in. No more will Olivia Pope or Harvey Specter outwit you with their legal lingo…


Affidavit - a written or printed statement made under oath. 

Alternate juror  - a juror who hears all the evidence but doesn't help to decide on a verdict unless called upon to replace one of the actual jurors. 

Attorney - an American term for lawyer. 

Attorney client privilege - a concept which protects communications between a client and his or her attorney and keeps those communications confidential. 

Bench trial - a trail without a jury where the judge plays the role of the jury. 

Beyond reasonable doubt – the standard of evidence required to validate a criminal conviction. If there is reasonable doubt as to whether a person committed a crime, the jury cannot conclude that they are guilty.

Class action - a lawsuit when one or more members of a large group sue on behalf of the group. 

Counter Claim - when a party puts in a claim after the defending party has already made a claim against them. 

Deposition - an oral statement made before an officer of the law. Deposition statements are used to examine potential witnesses or to be used later in trial. 

Docket - a log containing the complete summarised history of each case. 

Double jeopardy - a defence which forbids a defendant from being tried again on the same or similar charges following an acquittal or conviction. 

Due diligence – a legal obligation to act with a certain standard of care.

Felony - a serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison. 

Fruit from the poison tree - a term used to describe evidence that is obtained illegally and therefore cannot be used in court. 

Grand Jury - a body of around 20 citizens who listen to evidence presented by prosecutors and determine whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offence. 

Held in contempt – being disobedient or disrespectful of a court of law. If you are held in contempt you can be punished by being incarcerated in the custody of the sheriff until you comply or, in criminal cases, fined or imprisoned.

Impeachment – the process of calling a witness’ testimony into doubt.

Indictment – a formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence to justify having a trial.

Involuntary dismissal – a termination of a court case despite the prosecutor’s objections. The defence can motion for involuntary dismissal on the grounds that the plaintiff cannot prove their case.

Legal aid – when public funds are used to help pay for legal advice or proceedings.

Mistrial - a trail that is declared invalid because of an an error. When this happens the process must start from the beginning with a new jury. 

Mitigating circumstances - conditions or events which are taken into account when deciding the seriousness of the offence or charge. 

Paralegal - a professional who performs legal writing, research and documentation for the attorney on a case.

Plaintiff - a person or business who initiates a lawsuit. 

Plea bargain - an agreement between the prosecutor and defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in return for some concession or leniency from the prosecutor. 

Plead the fifth - a refusal to testify on the grounds that the testimony might incriminate the witness in a crime. It references the fifth amendment to the US constitution which states that no person shall be compelled to be a witness against himself. 

Pretrial hearing – a proceeding held by a judge before a trial to clarify issues.

Pro bono - legal work undertaken without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. Pro bono comes from the Latin phrase Pro bono publico, which translates as 'for the public good.' 

Recusal - when a judge excuses themselves from a case because of conflict of interest or lack of impartiality. 

States Attorney – an elected official who represents the state in criminal prosecutions.

Statute of limitations - the time in which a lawsuit must be filed. The deadline varies depending on the type of case or crime. 

Subpoena - a command issued by the court meaning that a witness has to appear and give testimony. 


 


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