Legal Terms & Definitions

The following definitions will make it easier for you to understand common legal words and phrases used frequently during a trial.

Action, Case, Suit

A legal dispute brought into court for a hearing or trial.


A pleading filed with the court before the trial by the defendant in a civil case to answer or deny the plaintiff’s claims.


To find the defendant in a criminal trial not guilty.

Cause of Action

The legal grounds on which a party to a lawsuit relies to get a verdict against an opponent.

Challenge for Cause

A request by a party that the court excuse a specific juror on the basis that the juror is in some way biased.

Closing Argument

After all the evidence of a lawsuit is heard on both sides, the lawyers tell the jury what they think the evidence proves and why they think the jury should find in favor of their client. This is an "argument" or "summing up." It is not evidence.


The first pleading in a civil case stating facts and demanding relief.


An answer to the complaint in which the defendant claims to be entitled to damages or other relief from the plaintiff.

Court Reporter

A court reporter is present during every trial. He or she is responsible for keeping the official record by recording every spoken word during the trial on a special machine called a stenograph.


Conduct declared unlawful by a legislative body and for which there is a punishment of a jail or prison term, a fine, or both.


Questions which a lawyer asks the opposing party or witness to test whether the person is telling the truth.


The discussions of the jury which occur after the judge has instructed you to retire to the jury room and consider your verdict.


If a party to a lawsuit or a witness cannot be in court because of illness or other inability, that person’s testimony may be transcribed by a court reporter sometime before trial. This testimony is then read at the trial. Attorneys for both sides are present when a deposition is taken. It may also be used to deny or contradict a witness’s testimony or for the purpose of refreshing a witness’s recollection.


Questions which the lawyers ask their own clients or witnesses called.


Articles that are given to the jury to take to the jury room while deliberating, such as:

  • Books
  • Documents
  • Letters
  • Objects
  • Pictures

Hung Jury

A jury whose members cannot agree on a verdict.


That which, under the established rules of evidence, cannot be admitted or received into evidence.


The document informing the defendant of the crime charged.


After all the evidence is in, and the lawyers have made their arguments, the judge outlines the questions to be decided and states the issues you must decide. The judge outlines the rules of law which must guide your deliberations.


A disputed question of fact which you must decide.


An erroneous or invalid trial. A mistrial is usually declared because of an error in the proceeding or when there was a hung jury. Cases that end in a mistrial have to be tried again at a later date.

Opening Statement

Before introducing any evidence in the case, a lawyer tells the jury what the case is about and what evidence is expected to be brought in to prove that side of the case. It is not evidence.


The judge’s ruling that a lawyer’s objection is not well taken under the rules for conducting the trial. The judge’s ruling, so far as you are concerned, is final and may not be questioned.


The plaintiff and defendant in the case - also called the "litigants".


All the documents filed by the parties before the trial to establish what issues must be decided by the jury.

Peremptory Challenge

A procedure used in jury selection that allows an attorney to reject a prospective juror without having to give a reason for the dismissal. Each side is allowed a limited number of peremptory challenges.

Preponderance of Evidence

The general standard of proof in civil cases. The weight of evidence presented by one side is more convincing to the trier of facts than the evidence presented by the opposing side.

Probable Cause

Reasonable cause; having more evidence for than against; a reasonable belief that a crime has or is being committed; the basis for all lawful searches, seizures, and arrests.

Reasonable Doubt

If, in the minds of the jury, a doubt exists which may have arisen from the evidence, or lack of evidence, a doubt that would exist in the mind of a reasonable person after fully, fairly, and carefully considering all the evidence, or lack of evidence.


The lawyer concludes the evidence to be introduced at that stage of the trial.


The conclusion of a legal matter; a compromised agreement between opposing parties in a civil suit before judgment is made, eliminating the need for a judge or jury to resolve the conflict.


Any statement made by a witness under oath in a legal proceeding.


The official record of proceedings in a trial or hearing, which is kept by the court reporter.


The formal decision made by a judge or jury regarding the outcome of a case.

Voir Dire

(pronounced "vwar-deer") "To speak the truth." The process of preliminary examination of prospective jurors, by the court or attorneys, regarding their qualifications to sit on a particular case.