Legal Glossary

Legal Glossary | Family Law, Divorce, Child Support, Child Custody.


abuse of discretion: A standard of review used by appellate courts to review decisions of lower courts. A judgment will be termed an abuse of discretion if the adjudicator has failed to exercise sound, reasonable, and legal decision-making skills. (Cornell Law School)

actual innocence: A claim made in an appeal of a criminal conviction when the convicted person presents additional evidence not available at the trial. In order for a person convicted of a crime to prove “actual innocence,” the prisoner must submit evidence that undermines the court’s confidence in the verdict reached by the jury. Appellate rules normally require that this evidence must not have been available to the defendant at the time of the trial. (Cornell Law School)

Actus reus: The act or omissions that comprise the physical elements of a crime as required by statute. See, e.g. Schad v. Arizona, 501 U.S. 624 (1991).(Wex)

Ad litem: From the Latin, meaning “for the lawsuit” — that is, for purposes of the current legal action. A guardian ad litem is a guardian appointed by the court to act on behalf of a minor or incompetent person. (Wex)


Bailment: A ‘bailment’ is a non-ownership transfer of possession. Under English Common Law, the right to possess a thing is separate and distinct from owning the thing. In some jurisdictions, an owner of an object can steal his own property, a curious result of the distinction. In context, an owner who lends someone else an article, then secretly takes it back, can be stealing. When a bailment is created, the article is said to have been ‘bailed’. One who delivers the article is the ‘bailor’. One who receives a ‘bailed’ article is the ‘bailee’. (Wex)

Bench trial: A trial where there is no jury. The judge must determine all questions of law and also be the trier of fact. see, e.g. Lewis v. United States, 518 US 322 (1996). (Wex)


Civil Rights: A Civil Right is a legal right or privilege under the Constitution of the United States. Civil rights include:

  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of the Press
  • Freedom of Assembly
  • The Right to Vote
  • Freedom from Involuntary Servitude,
  • Right to equality in public places

Certain groups and classes are protected by civil rights laws preventing discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin and in some instances, sexual preference. (Summarized from Wex Law)

Contempt: In general, punishable conduct that disrupts or obstructs an official proceeding or order. (Wex)

Color of Title: A person has “color of title” to a piece of property when, for one reason or another, the document evidencing title (a deed, for example) is invalid. (Wex)


entrapment: In criminal law, the act of law enforcement officers or government agents inducing or encouraging a person to commit a crime when the potential criminal expresses a desire not to go ahead. The key to entrapment is whether the idea for the commission or encouragement of the criminal act originated with the police or government agents instead of with the “criminal.” Entrapment, if proved, is a defense to a criminal prosecution. The accused often claims entrapment in so-called “stings” in which undercover agents buy or sell narcotics, prostitutes’ services or arrange to purchase goods believed to be stolen. The factual question is: Would Johnny Begood have purchased the drugs if not pressed by the narc? (

Embezzlement: Embezzlement occurs when someone who has been entrusted with money or property appropriates it for personal use and benefit. (

Employment Discrimination law composed of federal and state statutes provides legal protection against Discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin, physical disability, and age by employers. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution limit the power of the federal and state governments to discriminate. Discriminatory practices include: Bias in Hiring, Bias in Promotion, Bias in Job Assignment, Bias in Termination, Bias in Compensation, Harrassment. (Wex Law).


False imprisonment: The detainment or arrest of a person without a warrant, with an illegal warrant, or with a warrant illegally executed. So long as the person is deprived of his personal liberty, the amount of time actually detained is inconsequential. See, e.g. Schenck v. Pro Choice Network, 519 U.S. 357 (1997) (Wex)


Grand jury: A group of people selected to sit on a jury that decides whether to return indictments. Grand juries usually consist of 23 people and convene for a minimum of one month but can last up to a year. (Wex)


Habeas corpus: Latin for “that you have the body.” A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine if the person’s detention is lawful. It can also be used to examine any extradition processes used, amount of bail, and the jurisdiction of the court. see, e.g. Felker v. Turpin, Warden 518 US 1051 (1996) and McCleskey v. Zant 499 US 467 (1991). (Wex)


Inter alia: Latin for “among other things.” see, e.g., Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 US 663 (1991). (Wex)


Jurisdiction: Power of a court to adjudicate cases and issue orders. (Wex)


Libel: False words, which damage another person’s reputation or good character and are conveyed in a lasting manner, especially writing. (Wex)


Malum in se: An innately immoral act, regardless of whether it is forbidden by law. Examples include adultery, theft, and murder.


Negligence: Failure to exercise due care. When a person fails to exercise the care that a reasonable, prudent person would exercise under the same circumstances, that person is said to be negligent.


Power of Attorney: A person is said to have “power of attorney” when they are empowered to act as an agent or as attorney-in-fact for another person. (Wex)

Prima facie: Latin for “At first sight.” A prima facie case presents enough evidence for the plaintiff to win the case barring any defenses or additional evidence presented by the defendant. see, e.g. Hernandez v. New York, 500 US 352 (1991).

Pro se: Latin for “for oneself, on one’s own behalf.” When a litigant proceeds without legal counsel, they are said to be proceeding “pro se.” see, e.g. Rivera v. Florida Department of Corrections, 526 U.S. 135 (1999). (Wex)

Punitive damages: Punitive damages are awarded in addition to actual damages in certain circumstances. Punitive damages are considered punishment and are awarded when the defendant’s behavior is found to be especially harmful, but are normally not awarded in the context of a breach of contract claim. See e.g. O’Gilvie Minors v. United States 519 US 79 (1996). See also Honda Motor Co. v. Oberg 512 US 415 (1994). (Wex)


Quash: To set aside; to void. As in “to quash a motion,” or “quash evidence.” see, e.g. Arizona v. Evans, 514 US 1 (1995). (Wex)


Res judicata: Literally “a matter judged”, res judicata is the principle that a matter may not, generally, be relitigated once it has been judged on the merits.


Stare decisis: Latin for “to stand by things decided.” Stare decisis is essentially the doctrine of precedent. Courts cite to stare decisis when an issue has been previously brought to the court and a ruling already issued. Generally, courts will adhere to the previous ruling, though this is not universally true. See, e.g., Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 US 833 (1992).


Temporary restraining order: A short-term order, issued by a judge, which prevents one party from acting in a way that could irreparably harm another before a hearing can be held. (Wex)

Tort: A civil wrong which can be redressed by awarding damages. See, e.g. Smith v. United States, 507 U.S. 197 (1993). (Wex)


Unconscionable: Courts may strike down contracts or refuse to enforce any agreement deemed to be unconscionable. Generally, grave misconduct by one of the parties may qualify as unconscionable, especially if the agreement is extremely favorable to one party, the other party had a lack of meaningful choice, and the first party took advantage of that lack of choice. See, e.g. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291 (1995). (Wex)


Venue: In general, a place or location in which something takes place. The proper place to hold a civil or criminal trial, usually because important related events have taken place there.

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