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20 Courtroom Terms Everyone Should Know

Written by Cooper & Friedman PLLC on August 15, 2019

Courtroom TerminologyAppearing in court, as a defendant or plaintiff, can be stressful. This situation can be made even more stressful when you aren’t clear on what is being discussed. The legal system and court appearances are riddled with legal jargon. Not being aware of what certain courtroom terminology means can make an appearance even more difficult. While being able to follow along with what is being discussed can be crucial for your case, it is also important to be able to follow the conversation between lawyers, the judge, and other members of the court.

At Cooper and Friedman, we believe in transparency, which is why we want our clients to be educated on courtroom terminology. Below we’ve highlighted 20 terms you may hear in court and should know the meanings.

20 Important Pieces of Courtroom Terminology

1. Plaintiff

The plaintiff is one side of every legal case. The plaintiff is the person, group, or business who files a complaint with the courts.

2. Defendant

The defendant is the opposite of the plaintiff and the other party in every legal case. The defendant is defending the complaint filed against them by the plaintiff.

3. Depositions

Depositions are spoken statements taken both under oath and outside of court. They give the defendant and plaintiff a broad idea of what the other will be saying during court proceedings. It is not uncommon for the plaintiff to get a deposition from the defendant and vice versa.

4. Discovery Phase

The discovery phase is a phase that occurs prior to the trial, but after the summons has been sent out. The discovery phase is the time when both parties are preparing for trial, collecting all the information they may need for a trial, and writing their arguments.

5. Jurisdiction

The jurisdiction refers to the court that will hear the civil case. For most civil cases, the court that has jurisdiction decides on which court will hear the case. In federal court cases, jurisdiction is decided upon when the plaintiff and defendant are from different states and the claim exceeds $75,000.

6. Complaint

The complaint is the catalyst of a legal case and the reason that a court appearance must happen. The complaint comes from the plaintiff, is against the defendant, and is a written statement detailing the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant.

7. Summons

A summons is a legal document that requests a defendant appear in court. Summons are different than a subpoena in that it requests an appearance and is solely intended for a case defendant. A summons can be hand delivered by a sheriff, a server, or it can be mailed.

8. Pleadings

Pleadings refer to the documents that are filed with the court handling the case that give basic details on where each party stands. The term pleadings isn’t very common, but pleadings are important for every civil case.

9. Settlement

A settlement is what occurs when either the plaintiff or defendant decides to come to terms in regards to their dispute outside of court. Settlements are usually in the form of a monetary payment to the affected party that satisfies them but does not require the party offering the settlement to admit fault.

10. Subpoena

A subpoena is similar to a deposition in that it requires the served party to act; however, while a deposition requires the served party to make a statement, a subpoena requires the served party to make an appearance in court and testify under oath.

11. Misdemeanors

A misdemeanor is a crime or punishable offense that requires one year, or less, of imprisonment. Common misdemeanor crimes include DUI, burglary, perjury, an assault that results in bodily injury, some cases of domestic violence, and obscenity.

12. Felonies

Felonies, unlike misdemeanors, are more serious crimes that result in over a year of imprisonment when one is found guilty of the charge. Some felonies that are common include drug abuse, auto theft, arson, assault, manslaughter, rape, fraud, and forgery.

13. Approach the Bench

The term “approach the bench” is one commonly used during court hearings and is used by the prosecutor or defense attorney to request a private discussion with the judge overseeing the court case. When a request to approach the bench is made by either the prosecutor or defense attorney, if granted, the opposing party is also able to approach the bench to ensure full transparency of the conversation.

14. Direct Examination

A direct examination refers to the time spent by a witness on the stand testifying and answering questions from the attorney who called them. Direct examinations are different than cross examination because a direct examination is a lawyer interviewing a witness they have chosen for the case. A cross examination is when a witness is interviewed by the opposing attorney.

15. Move to Strike

A lawyer can request a “move to strike” when something is said by a witness who is testifying that they do not want the jury to consider during their deliberations. The most common statements that are requested to strike from court records are opinions that witness give when they are not asked to do so.

16. Objection

Anyone who has seen a television show that is based around the court of law or a movie with a courtroom scene has heard a lawyer bellow “objection!” An objection is what an attorney may pose when they have an issue with the way the opposing party is cross-examining a witness or a witness makes a statement that is considered hearsay.

17. Sustained

The term “sustained” is what a judge says when they agree with an objection. A sustained objection requires that the attorney doing the examination must rephrase their question or the witness being examined must restate their answer.

18. Closing Arguments

Closing arguments are the final statements made by the prosecutor and defense attorney after the two parties have made their cases, witnesses have all been called to the stand, and cross-examinations have been completed. These arguments often invoke emotion from the jury to sway their feelings on the case. As a result, this can benefit the prosecutor or defense attorney depending on who is speaking.

19. Mistrial

A mistrial is what occurs when a jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision, or verdict, on a case. A mistrial can be called after a jury has deliberated and is unable to make a decision as a whole. When a mistrial is declared the case is eligible to be retried in front of a completely different jury. Otherwise, the prosecution can choose to not move forward with the case.

20. Voir Dire

“Voir Dire” refers to the selection of the jury through the process of questioning potential jurors. The questioning is done to ensure that the jury is made up of peers of the defendant who are qualified to form an unbiased opinion based on the facts presented during the trial. Voir Dire is also done to make sure that no juror has any conflicting beliefs or personal relationships with the plaintiff or defendant in the court case.

The Real Importance of Knowing Courtroom Terminology

During a trial, many other terms will be used throughout the proceedings; however, these 20 are key terms that anyone going to court should have knowledge of. Knowing this courtroom terminology will enable clients to follow along during the case without being confused. For more information on court terms, click here to read the glossary of legal terms collected by the United States Courts.

At Cooper and Friedman, we have over 45 years of combined experience in courtrooms across Indiana and Kentucky. We are here to help our clients get the best results possible in court. Furthermore, we believe knowledge of courtroom terminology helps ease client anxiety. If you are in a situation where you need a lawyer, contact us today. We offer free case consultations and are happy to listen to what is going on, so we can help. Contact us through our website or by calling 502-449-7555 today.

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