Legal jargon for non-lawyers
Posted by: Tim Shaw, Minster Law.
It takes a long time to become a lawyer and along the way you have to learn a lot of phrases and terms that have specific meanings within the legal profession. Many of these come from Latin or Old French so aren’t obvious without a knowledge of law or dead languages.
As a lawyer, it becomes completely normal over time to use this legal jargon, especially when you deal with other lawyers on a day to day basis; it almost seems a shame not to use these phrases when you’ve spent so much time learning what they mean. To non-lawyers, however, these phrases are often impenetrable or plain confusing. That’s a problem, because lawyers need to know that their clients understand the advice the lawyer has given. The client is of course entitled to disagree with the advice, but the lawyer wants to be sure that they fully understood it.
Most lawyers are aware of this issue and try their best to explain legal matters to non-lawyers in plain English, but even with the best will in the world lawyers sometimes use jargon without realising it. When non-lawyers are confronted with legal words or phrases that they don’t understand, surprisingly few of them challenge the lawyer and ask them to explain things again in plain English.
While it would be nice to think that everyone understands these terms and phrases perfectly, the reality is that many people lack the confidence to admit they don’t really know what the lawyer means. So, in an attempt to help explain the mysterious world of legal jargon, here is a list of words and phrases often used by lawyers, together with explanations of what they mean.
Adjourn: to postpone a court hearing to a later date.
Barrister: a lawyer who specialises in court room representation, drafting certain legal documents and expert legal opinions.
Body: a company, corporation, partnership, council, government department etc. An individual is referred to as ‘person.’
Breach of duty: failing to do something required by the law, or doing something the law forbids.
Brief: a document prepared by a solicitor which contains the instructions for the barrister to follow when representing a Claimant or Defendant at a hearing.
Capacity: the ability, capability or fitness of someone to enter into a legal agreement.
Case management conference (CMC): a type of hearing.
Causation: whether a breach of duty has caused injury and/or financial loss.
Cause of action: the legal reason why someone is entitled to make a claim.
Claimant: a person making a claim.
Claims Portal: see MOJ Portal.
Compensation: an award, usually money, paid to a person for losses and/or injuries suffered.
Conditional fee agreement: a method of funding the legal costs involved in making or defending a claim, sometimes called a no-win, no-fee agreement.
Consent: to agree to something.
Contributory negligence: where your own negligence or breach of duty contributes to the injury and/or financial loss you suffer.
Counsel: another word for a Barrister.
Counterclaim: making a claim in court against someone who has already made a claim in court against you.
Damages: see Compensation.
Defendant: a person defending a claim which has been made against them.
Dependant: someone who depends on another person to support them financially.
Directions: steps that have to be taken by specific dates before the hearing, usually agreed between the solicitors for each side or imposed by a judge.
Disclosure: one party revealing to the other party the documents under their control that are relevant to the case and allowing them to be inspected.
Disposal: a type of hearing.
Duty of care: a person or body’s responsibility to take reasonable care to ensure the safety of others.
Full and final settlement: a settlement which covers all injuries and/or losses that have been or could have been made in a claim.
General damages: compensation for injuries and/or losses which cannot be precisely valued. It includes compensation for pain and injuries suffered and being unable to carry out hobbies and pastimes, as well as losses which will continue after the end of the claim, such as loss of earnings. They are separate and distinct from special damages.
Hearing: an appointment at court where a judge considers the evidence and law and then makes decisions on particular issues or the whole claim.
Infant approval: an appointment at court where a judge considers a proposed settlement on behalf of a minor and decides whether it is appropriate.
Jurisdiction: whether the court has power to deal with a particular claim.
Liability: blame or responsibility.
Limitation: the time period within which court proceedings must be started.
Litigation: court proceedings, or taking legal action through the courts.
Litigation friend: an adult who makes decisions for a minor or someone who lacks capacity.
Minor: someone who has not yet reached the age when they gain full legal rights and responsibilities; in the UK this is someone under the age of 18.
MOJ Portal: properly known as the Claims Portal, an electronic method of submitting certain types of claims up to a set value.
Negligence: failing to carry out a duty of care.
Pleadings: the legal documents setting out details of a claim and the allegations of the parties.
Provisional damages: a settlement which is full and final unless some specified medical condition arises at a later date; if that particular condition does arise, it is possible to reopen the claim and ask for additional compensation.
Settlement: an agreement to bring a claim to an end, usually in exchange for an agreed amount of compensation.
Solicitor: a lawyer who can deal with and give advice on legal matters and who is listed on the Roll of Solicitors kept by the Law Society.
Special damages: compensation for losses incurred up to the hearing for which a specific figure can be calculated; the judge will insist that they are provided with proof of these losses.
Third party: strictly, someone other than the two sides in a situation; more commonly, the other side in a legal dispute
Trial: see Hearing
Vicarious liability: where one person or body is legally responsible for the acts or omissions of another; a common example is a bus company, which is responsible for the negligent acts or omission of its drivers when they are working, even though the bus company itself did not do anything wrong
Without prejudice: correspondence or discussions, generally with a view to reaching a settlement, which are confidential between the parties and cannot be made known to a judge at a hearing
Witness summons: an order that a person attend at a particular court on a particular date at a stated time, usually to give evidence to a judge at a hearing