Basic Legal Terminology: Definitions & Glossary

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

When dealing with legal matters or starting an education in law, there are basic terms that can help you understand courtroom and legal documents. Read on to find out more.


Legal wording can be very complex and almost inaccessible if you do not have a basic knowledge of the important terms. Many people consider legalese a separate language of its own, requiring specific training just to understand. Much like learning a foreign language, developing a basic understanding of some of the essential terms can help you navigate legal documents. Since legal terminology requires specific definitions and wording, it's important to know the exact meaning of each term, even if they already seem familiar.

Processes in Court

There are several terms that are good to know regarding processes and practices in court.

  • Docket - An outline and documentation of what happens during a court case and all of its proceedings.
  • Arraignment - One of the first court proceedings, where the defendant has to appear in court, hear the listing of their crimes, and state whether they are not guilty or guilty. This determines the rest of the court proceedings.
  • Deposition - A statement provided to an officer of the law or lawyer, which is usually used to determine credibility and reliability of a witness.
  • Subpoena - A requirement by the court to show up and testify as needed. This is not a negotiable demand. You must show up, otherwise you are going against the wishes of the court and can be accused of a crime.


Mark received a subpoena from the court to show up for a deposition before the arraignment was scheduled.

Judgement Terms

The first selection of terms has to do with words and phrases seen in the courtroom regarding judgements on cases.

  • Acquit - Being found not guilty by a jury or judge, or the determination that there was not enough evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Guilty - Admitting to committing the crime.
  • Malpractice - A person who had a responsibility for care and ignored or completely disregarded their responsibility.
  • Negligence - A situation in which someone did not pay attention or take the requisite level of care.
  • Not-Guilty - A declaration of innocence, that a person did not commit the crime.
  • Not-Guilty by Reason of Insanity - Stating that the person was not in a mind to understand the crime being committed.
  • No Contest - Neither admitting nor denying the crime, but an acceptance of the accusation.
  • Perjury - Lying under oath in court.


Melanie plead not-guilty to the crime of malpractice. She was eventually acquitted when it was determined that the accuser committed perjury in court.

Legal Terms Used with Clients

Although many terms are used in the court and with clients, there is still some general terminology that may be used in non-court settings.

  • Custodian - A guardian of a child who is responsible for money allocation.
  • Diligence - Opposite of negligence, this shows proper care of a subject or situation.
  • Easement - The permission that is provided to someone to access a piece of property in perpetuity, such as for mineral rights.
  • Executor - An individual that is responsible for executing a will, or following the wishes of a will and testament.
  • Good Faith - Behavior and actions that are honest and not used to deceive or commit a crime.
  • Living Will - A document that is used like a will, but if the person is still alive but cannot make decisions. For instance, if the person was in a coma.
  • Tort - A civil crime or issue.
  • Relief - This term is used to refer to compensation in a civil suit, such as child support.

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