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The Layman’s Guide to Legalese

By Marleigh Green

If you have never worked in a law office, or aren’t experienced with legal reading, chances are you aren’t familiar with complex legal terminology. For the layman, the legal field can be daunting, and getting involved in a lawsuit with no knowledge of legal terms can leave you confused and worried about what you’re walking into. While it is best to seek legal counsel if a lawsuit arises, being familiar with the terms that attorneys use will benefit you in the long run.

As such, I’ve written a quick guide to help the layman understand common words and phrases used in the practice of law:

Arbitration: Arbitration is a trial-like process in which  attorneys present the case before one or more  arbitrators, who render a judgment. Depending on circumstances, the judgment may or may not be binding on the parties. Unlike a court trial, there is no jury and the parties typically have to pay for the arbitration process and hearing.

Complaint: A Complaint is a pleading stating a legal claim against an adverse party.  It is served on the defendant(s)to initiate a lawsuit and to inform them  they are being sued.

Defendant: In a lawsuit, the Defendant is the person being sued. If you are served with a lawsuit, seek legal counsel immediately.

Demurrer: A Demurrer is a pleading challenging the contents of a complaint or answer on the grounds that the challenged filing is legally irrelevant to the case. For example, a complaint filed beyond the statute of limitations is subject to demurrer.

Deposition: A deposition is essentially an interview under oath, where a witness, plaintiff, or defendant, sits down with their attorney and the opposing counsel. In a deposition, you answer any questions that the adverse attorney has about what happened. Depositions are used as evidence in court cases and are extremely important to the discovery process.

Discovery: Discovery is the process of gathering information about a case from other parties. It involves collecting and exchanging written responses to questions, documents, videos, testimony, and anything else that may help lead to a case’s resolution or strengthen a party’s argument.

Incident: In a case, the Incident is the occurrence, event or series of events leading  to the lawsuit being filed. If you’re a business owner and a customer slips and falls, the slip and fall is considered the Incident.

In Pro Per: People who file lawsuits or appear in court In Pro Per are representing themselves without legal counsel. If you do not have experience with the law, going in pro per is usually not the best course of action.

Understanding Legalese; Mumbo Jumbo

Sometimes legal terminology can feel like Mumbo Jumbo

Limited vs. Unlimited Jurisdiction: California cases are either Limited or Unlimited Jurisdiction based on the amount of money in dispute.  Limited cases are valued at $25,000 or less. Unlimited cases are valued above $25,000.

Mediation: Mediation is often required or desired before a case goes to trial. All  parties in a case meet with their attorneys and a third-party neutral, the mediator, to try and reach an out-of-court resolution. Mediations can lead to the successful conclusion of a case without costly court fees.

Plaintiff: A Plaintiff is the person who brings a lawsuit and files a complaint against the Defendant. If you are going to sue someone, be sure to hire an attorney to help you navigate the process.

Pleading: Pleadings are legal papers filed with the court.  They include complaints, answers, demurrers, motions, judgments, name changes, attorney changes, and numerous other documents.

Stipulation: A Stipulation is an agreement between parties and/or their attorneys for the convenience of the parties and the court.  Parties may stipulate to extend deadlines, admit or exclude evidence, or arrange a myriad of details in a case.  Depending on the nature of the stipulation, a court order confirming the agreement may be required.

Subpoena: Subpoenas are a court-issued process compelling persons to appear in court, produce documents and/or appear for depositions.  If you receive a subpoena but are not actively involved in a lawsuit, you are still required to comply with the court order. Ignoring a subpoena could result in fines and even jail for contempt.

Summons: A legal document  issued by the court to notify you that you have been sued, and require a response to a lawsuit.

Writ: A formal, written order commanding a person or entity to do something, or refrain from doing something.  Writs can be filed by attorneys as a sort of appeal under certain circumstances; to execute upon assets in satisfaction of judgment; evict tenants; and in numerous other circumstances.

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