A Guide to Commonly Used Legal Terms
Alternative Dispute Resolution - working with a mediator who helps two parties in dispute resolve their differences mutually, or with an arbitrator who listens to the parties and makes a non-binding decision. Both of these approaches take place outside the formal court process, and that frees up valuable court resources.
Amicus Curiae - Latin for "friend of the court." It is most often, unsolicited advice given to a trial judge or appeals court by a person or organization interested, but not involved in a dispute.
Answer - the defendant's response to the plaintiff's complaint. The answer admits or denies the claims in the plaintiff's complaint.
Appeal - a legal action which seeks review by a court of a lower court decision.
Appellant - the side that lost in the trial court and has filed an appeal. Sometimes called the petitioner.
Appellee - generally, the side that won in the trial court, and whose victory is being appealed by the losing side. Sometimes called the respondent.
Arbitration hearing - an informal legal proceeding held before a neutral person called an arbitrator.
Arbitrator - the person who presides at an arbitration hearing and renders a decision on the case.
Arraignment - when the defendant appears in Superior Court and enters a plea of guilty or not guilty to a felony charge.
Bail - money or other form of security given to gain a person's release from custody. A bail bond is one form of security.
Burden of Proof - the duty to prove disputed facts. In criminal cases, the burden rests on the prosecutors. In civil cases, the burden most often is carried by the plaintiff.
Business Court - a session of Superior Court devoted to complex business cases, presided over by a specially-designated judge.
Civil - not criminal. In a civil action, one person or entity is suing another, usually for money damages.
Child Custody Mediation - divorced parents who have unresolved issues about child custody or visitation may use this non-adversarial alternative to litigation. Fifty-five counties have a Child Custody Mediation Program, and in most cases, parents are required to participate in this program before proceeding through the traditional court system. Many parents are able to see what is best for the child and reach an agreement without returning to court.
Clerk of Court- the clerks of Superior Court in each county of the state exercise the judicial power of the state in the probate of wills, administration of estates, and the handling of special proceedings such as adoptions and foreclosures. Clerks also keep the county court records. They are elected to four-year terms.
Common Law - older than our nation, it originated in England and came to America with the colonists. It is law that comes from tradition and judicial decisions, not from some legislative act. Sometimes called case law.
Complaint - the document which, when filed with the court, initiates a lawsuit. It sets forth the plaintiff's claims against the defendant.
Concurrent Sentence - prison terms for two or more offenses to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. Example: Two 5-year sentences and one 3-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of five years behind bars.
Consecutive Sentence - prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other. Example: Two 5-year sentences and one 3-year sentence, if served consecutively, result in a maximum of 13 years behind bars.
Continuance - the postponement of an action pending in court to another date.
Court of Appeals - 15 judges, elected statewide, make up this intermediate appellate court. Judges sit in rotating panels of three, and they hear appeals from the trial courts in all civil cases and all criminal cases except death penalty cases, and also hear appeals from certain state administrative agencies. Voters elect the judges in statewide, partisan elections for eight-year terms.
Court Reporters - court personnel who record trial proceedings word-for-word. Reporters who use a stenotype machine must be able to write at least 225 spoken words per minute. Those who use a stenomask must be able to record 250 words a minute. If the case is appealed, the verbatim record must be transcribed promptly for the appellate court.
Court-Ordered Arbitration - most civil cases involving claims totaling $15,000 or less are subject to court-ordered arbitration. Arbitration hearings are usually limited to one hour, take place in the courthouse and are conducted by a trained and approved attorney arbitrator who is either appointed by the court or selected by the parties. In many cases, the arbitrator's award becomes the final settlement, without the need for a trial. Sixty-nine counties in the state have a Court-Ordered Arbitration program.
Damages - money awarded for an injury or loss due to the unlawful act or negligence of another.
De Facto - Latin, meaning in fact or actually.
Defendant - a person accused of a crime or a person being sued in a civil action.
De Jure - Latin meaning in law or lawfully.
Dismissal with Prejudice - prevents an identical lawsuit from being filed later.
Dismissal without Prejudice - allows a later filing.
District Attorneys - also known as prosecutors, represent the state in all criminal actions brought in Superior and District courts, and in juvenile delinquency cases in which an attorney represents the child. Voters elect a district attorney in each of the 39 prosecutorial districts of the state. Another 438 assistant district attorneys work in those districts. DAs serve four-year terms.
District Court - in civil cases, judges hear cases for all actions involving $10,000 or less. District Court also has preliminary jurisdiction over felony cases and over the trial of all misdemeanors and infractions. This court also has exclusive jurisdiction over all juvenile proceedings, mental health hospital commitments and domestic relations cases. The state has 235 District Court judges who are elected by the voters for a four-year term and serve in 39 districts.
Drug Treatment Courts - a court-based intervention program to ensure that chemically dependent offenders receive appropriate treatment and are held strictly accountable for their behavior. Offenders participate for a minimum of one year, appearing before a judge twice a month to report on their progress or setbacks. If the offender does not comply with the strict terms of the program, the judge may order jail time.
Evidence - documents, objects or testimony admitted in a trial to prove certain facts.
Expungement - Process by which a record of criminal conviction is removed by order of the court.
Family Court - one judge hears all issues pertaining to one family such as divorce, child custody, adoption, abuse, neglect and delinquency. Treatment and intervention programs help resolve issues, serve families better, and provide a more efficient use of trial court time.
Felony - any of a number of serious crimes such as murder, rape, burglary.
First Appearance - the first time a person comes to respond to criminal charges.
Foreign Language Interpreter Project - using grant funding, the Foreign Language Interpreter Project is certifying interpreters for the courts. Interpreters are trained to translate for the court word for word what a non-English speaking person is saying, not what the interpreter thinks the person is trying to say. This project sponsors seminars on the subject, looking for potential court interpreters. It also trains and certifies court interpreters.
Grand Jury - a body of up to 18 people who decide if there is sufficient evidence to charge a person with a felony.
Guardian ad Litem - a person appointed by the court to represent the interest of a minor or incompetent during the litigation.
Guardian ad Litem Program - when a child is thrust into the legal system because of abuse, neglect or dependency, a trained GAL volunteer researches the child's home and community situation. That volunteer acts as the child's advocate in court, giving a judge information on the child's situation and making recommendations for the child's best interests including a safe, permanent home. More than 3,600 volunteers represent 12,000 children in every county across the state.
Habeas Corpus - Latin for "You have the body." Most often, a writ of habeas corpus is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner's continued confinement. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus often is filed in federal courts by state prison inmates who say their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights in some way.
Hung Jury - one whose members cannot reach a verdict because of differences of opinion.
In Camera - in a judge's chambers, outside the presence of a jury and the public.
Indictment - a formal written accusation charging one or more people with a felony. It is submitted to a grand jury by the prosecuting attorney.
Injunction - a court order preventing one or more specific parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.
Judge or Justice - a public official who hears and decides cases brought before a court of law. North Carolina has seven justices on the Supreme Court, 15 judges on the Court of Appeals, 105 Superior Court judges, and 235 District Court judges.
Judgment - the decision of a judge or jury resolving a dispute and determining the rights and obligations of the parties.
Judicial Branch - one of the three co-equal branches of government. The Legislative Branch enacts laws, the Executive Branch enforces laws, and the Judicial Branch interprets and applies laws in specific cases.
Jurisdiction - the power and authority of the court to hear certain cases. For example, the jurisdiction for divorce cases is in civil court.
Lien - a legal claim usually against a piece of land for payment of some debt, obligation, or duty. Some forms of liens are tax liens and materialman's liens.
Litigation - a controversy in a court.
Magistrates - act as judges working around the clock, issuing warrants of arrest, presiding over trials of small claims, ($4,000 or less), and performing marriages. Their offices are usually located in or near the courthouse. The state has 719 magistrates in every county. Magistrates are appointed for two-year terms.
Mediated Settlement Conferences - a statewide program dealing with civil Superior Court cases. When parties are in litigation, a mediator helps them arrive at mutually agreeable solutions. The state has nearly 900 certified mediators who conduct mediated settlement conferences. More than half of the cases are settled in this way.
Misdemeanor - an offense of lesser gravity than a felony.
Moot - not subject to a court ruling because the controversy has not actually arisen, or has ended.
Motion - A document filed with the court seeking to obtain a ruling or order from the court that is favorable to the party filing a motion.
Notice - a formal, written announcement communicating scheduling information or other information about a case. The original notice is filed with the clerk of Superior Court and copies are mailed or hand-delivered to parties to the litigation.
Pardon - a form of clemency, granted by the governor.
Parole - supervised conditional release of a prisoner. Applies to prison inmates sentenced before the Structured Sentencing Laws were enacted in 1994.
Party - the plaintiff or defendant in a case. The plaintiff is the party who files the lawsuit and the defendant is the party who is being sued.
Plaintiff - the one who initially brings a suit.
Post Release Supervision - similar to parole and for people sentenced under the Structured Sentencing Act.
Preliminary Hearings - held to determine if there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial.
Preponderance of Evidence - evidence as a whole which shows the fact is more likely than not.
Probable cause for arrest - a fair probability that a crime was committed and a fair probability that the suspect committed that crime.
Probable cause to search - a fair probability that something that may be lawfully seized is located in the place to be searched or on the person to be searched.
Probate - determining the validity of a will.
Probation - alternative to imprisonment. Conditions of freedom for offender in compliance with restrictions or requirements.
Prosecutors - Same as District Attorneys.
Public Defenders - the state provides legal counsel for defendants who have been determined by a judge as financially unable to hire their own attorney. There are 11 public defenders in the state, and 121 assistant public defenders representing indigent people in 13 counties. (If the person is found guilty, he must repay the state). The senior resident Superior Court judge appoints a public defender to a four-year term. In the remaining counties, representation is provided by private attorneys.
Reasonable Doubt - doubt based on reason, arising from evidence or lack of evidence.
Sentencing Services - using a network of not-for-profit agencies and state-operated programs, Sentencing Services helps develop sentencing plans for offenders that more effectively use available treatments and correctional resources in criminal cases.
Statute of Limitations - the time within which a lawsuit must be filed. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of lawsuit.
Structured Sentencing Act - enacted October 1, 1994, the law classifies offenders on the basis of the severity of their crime and on the extent and gravity of their prior criminal record. Based on these two factors, structured sentencing provides judges with sentencing options for the type and length of sentences that may be imposed.
Supreme Court - the seven-member Supreme Court is the state's highest court. Justices decide questions of law in civil and criminal cases on appeal. The Supreme Court has the power to control and supervise the proceedings of other courts and has the authority to set court schedules and promulgate rules of practice and procedure for the trial courts. Voters elect the chief justice and the six associate justices of the Supreme Court for eight-year terms.
Testate - With a will. Absence of such a document is "intestate."
Tort - A civil, not criminal, wrong. An injury against a person or property.
Trial Court Administrators - North Carolina has 12 trial court administrators serving in 14 of the state's 46 Superior Court districts. They assist in managing the day-to-day administrative operations of the trial courts, including civil case calendaring, jury use, and maintaining local court rules.
Venue - The particular county in which the court with jurisdiction may hear the case for example, a divorce action is filed in civil court in the county where either the plaintiff or defendant resides).
Voir Dire - Jury selection process of questioning prospective jurors.
Warrant - Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers to conduct a search or make an arrest.