Book of legal terms

This glossary of common legal terms is intended as a guide only. For further information, or to find a local Solicitor contact The Law Society in England and Wales, The Law Society of Northern Ireland, or The Law Society of Scotland.

Abandon: to intentionally and permanently give up, surrender, leave, desert or relinquish all interest or ownership in a property. The term is often used to determine if a tenant has left a property and has no intention of returning.

Abatement: the removal of a problem which is against policy or endangers others (nuisances such as noise or antisocial behaviour).

Abet: to help someone plan or commit a crime, or escape arrest.

Abscond: to leave an area (also known as a jurisdiction) to avoid arrest or avoid being served with legal papers; the term can also mean fleeing with stolen funds or goods.

Affidavit: any written document in which the signatory swears under oath before a notary public or someone authorised to take oaths that the statements in the document are true.

Barrister: a legal practitioner in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the term Advocate is used.

Bound Over: to be under a legal obligation to keep the peace.

Chambers: a private room or courtroom from which the public are excluded. Chambers can also refer to offices used by barristers.

Circuit: the area, which can encompass a number of counties or districts, in which a judge has the judicial authority to decide on cases.

Civil Court: a court which deals with private rights versus offences against the state.

Compensation: monies paid to make amends for loss, breakage, hardship or personal injury caused by another person.

Contempt of Court: a lack of respect or obedience by an individual in a court of law; this offence may lead to a fine or imprisonment.

Crown Court: a court that hears serious criminal cases including murder or robbery; these trials are heard by a judge and a 12 person jury.

Custodial Sentence: where an offender is confined to a prison or a young offenders’ institution for a set period of time.

Defendant: a person who appears in court because they are being sued, standing trial or appearing for sentencing.

Embezzlement: dishonestly taking another person’s assets for one’s own gain.

Fraud: intentional deception to cause harm to another person or for personal gain.

Garnishment: the seizing of a person’s property or salary for the purposes of paying off a creditor’s debt.

Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH): a physical assault which causes serious harm or injury to another person.

Gross Negligence: an act or omission which places another person at risk of harm.

Hearing: any proceedings held before a court of law.

Indemnity: a person’s right to recover monies from a third party.

Inheritance Tax: a tax which the inheritors of a deceased person’s property are required to pay.

Justice of the Peace: the official title of a Magistrate who deals with minor criminal matters and misdemeanours. Summary trials are held in a Magistrate’s court.

Lawyer: a person trained in the law who is certified to give legal advice and represent others.

Lease: a contract between a property owner and a person wanting temporary use of a property in exchange for rent paid.

Libel: the publication of a false statement about another person who is alive without legal justification such as in a newspaper or letter.

Liquidation: the selling of a debtor’s assets to pay off creditors.

Malfeasance: to do something that is illegal.

Misdemeanour: a minor crime which is not tried in a criminal court.

Mitigating: an argument made on behalf of a guilty defendant to excuse their offence to obtain a reduced sentence or fine.

Negligence: an action which causes harm or injury to another person.

Notary: a legal office with the authority to confirm that legal documents are true.

Oath: a promise to tell the truth or take a specific action in front of a court of law.

Paralegal: a person who is not a lawyer but who can provide certain legal services.

Perjury: an intentional lie under oath or in a sworn statement.

Petty Offence: a minor crime which results in a fine or short term of imprisonment.

Privilege: the right of someone to refuse to disclose or produce a document or to answer questions based on legally recognised circumstances.

Probate: the legal recognition of the validity of a will.

Provocation: to provoke another person to respond with hostility.

Rescind: to cancel a contract as may be the case when a new contract is agreed or the original contract has been found to be faulty.

Retainer: a contract which states that a lawyer will represent a client in exchange for money.

Slander: a verbal false statement about another person who is alive without legal justification.

Solicitor: a qualified and certified lawyer who offers expert legal advice and prepares legal documents.

Subpoena: an order of the court which requires someone to be present at a certain time and in a certain place; failure to do so can result in a penalty such as a fine or imprisonment.

Summons: an order signed by a Magistrate which requires someone to be present at a certain time and in a certain place to answer a charge.

Suspended Sentence: a custodial sentence not resulting in imprisonment, unless another offence is committed within a specified period.

Tenant: a person to whom a landlord allows temporary use of land or part of a building in exchange for rent. Tenants in common are parties who share equal property rights.

Tort: a form of law which allows an injured person to claim compensation from a perpetrator.

Trespass: to unlawfully interfere with another person’s property or rights.

Upheld: an appeal against a legal decision resulting in the original ruling being maintained.

Usury: an illegal interest rate which is usually excessive and above a certain level.

Waiver: when a person declines a specific legal right (either by their actions or in written form).

Will: a legal document which defines where a person’s money or property will go when they die.

Young Offender: a child between the ages of 10 and 17 who is tried differently than an adult. Young offenders are usually tried in Youth Courts and if found guilty, may serve their sentence in a Young Offenders’ Institution.

Plaintiff: the one who brings the complaint, otherwise known as the charge, in civil cases, a plaintiff may also be known as a petition.