To assist you with your legal enquiry, Armstrong Lawyers has comprised this Glossary of Legal Terms. The aim is not that this should constitute legal advice, but that it might help you in deciding if you wish to bring your matter to us.

Should you decide to, one of our experience lawyers would be more than willing to discuss your legal issue with you. Please contact us to arrange a meeting.

Acceptance

One of three requisites to a valid contract under common law (the other two being an offer and consideration). A contract is a legally binding agreement between two or more parties which starts with an offer from one person but which does not become a contract until the other party signifies an unequivocal willingness to accept the terms of that offer.

Act Of God

An event which is caused solely by the effect of nature or natural causes and without any interference by humans whatsoever. Insurance contracts often exclude “acts of God” from the list of insurable occurrences as a means to waive their obligations for damage caused by hurricanes, floods or earthquakes, all examples of “acts of God”.

Adverse Possession

The possession of land, without legal title, for a period of time sufficient to become recognized as legal owner. The more common word for this is “squatters.” Each state has its own period of time after which a squatter can acquire legal title. Some states prohibit title by mere prescription or possession.

Affidavit

A statement which before being signed, the person signing takes an oath that the contents are, to the best of their knowledge, true. It is also signed by a notary or some other judicial officer that can administer oaths, to the effect that the person signing the affidavit was under oath when doing so.

Agent

A person who has received the power to act on behalf of another, binding that other person as if he or she were themselves making the decisions. The person who is being represented by the agent is referred to as the “principal.”

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Also known as “ADR”; methods by which legal conflicts and disputes are resolved privately and other than through litigation in the public courts, usually through one of two forms: mediation or arbitration. It typically involves a process much less formal than the traditional court process and includes the appointment of a third-party to preside over a hearing between the parties. The advantages of ADR are speed and money: it costs less and is quicker than court litigation. ADR forums are also private. The disadvantage is that it often involves compromise.

Amalgamation

The merging of two things together to form one such as the amalgamation of different companies to form a single company.

Annulment

To make void; to cancel an event or judicial proceeding both retroactively and for the future. Where, for example, a marriage is annulled, it is struck from all records and stands as having never transpired in law. This differs from a divorce which merely cancels a valid marriage only from the date of the divorce. A marriage annulled stands, in law, as if never performed.

Appeal

To ask a more senior court or person to review a decision of a subordinate court or person. In some countries such as Canada, the USA and Australia, appeals can continue all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the decision is final in that it can no longer be appealed. That is why it is called “supreme” (although, in Australia the supreme court is called the High Court ).

Appearance

The act of showing up in court as either plaintiff, defendant, accused or any other party to a civil or criminal suit. It implies that you accept the power of the court to try the matter (i.e. “jurisdiction”). Appearances are most often made by lawyers on their clients behalf and any appearance by a lawyer binds the client. You can make a limited appearance called a “special appearance” in which your presence is not to imply acceptance of the court’s jurisdiction but, rather, to challenge the jurisdiction of the court. An example of the usefulness of a “special appearance” would be where you want to raise the fact that you were never properly served with the court papers.

Apportionment

The division and distribution of something into proportionate parts; to each according to their share. For example, if a court ordered apportionment of a contract, the party would be required to perform only to a extent equal to the performance of the other side.

Arbitration

An alternative dispute resolution method by which an independent, neutral third person (“arbitrator”) is appointed to hear and consider the merits of the dispute and renders a final and binding decision called an award. The process is similar to the litigation process as it involves adjudication, except that the parties choose their arbitrator and the manner in which the arbitration will proceed. The decision of the arbitrator is known as an “award.” Compare with mediation

Articles Of Incorporation

The basic charter of a corporation which spells out the name, basic purpose, incorporators, amount and types of stock which may be issued, and any special characteristics such as being non-profit.

Bad faith

Intent to deceive. A person who intentionally tries to deceive or mislead another in order to gain some advantage.

Bankruptcy

The formal condition of an insolvent person being declared bankrupt under law. The legal effect is to divert most of the debtor’s assets and debts to the administration of a third person, sometimes called a “trustee in bankruptcy”, from which outstanding debts are paid pro rata. Bankruptcy forces the debtor into a statutory period during which his or her commercial and financial affairs are administered under the strict supervision of the trustee. Bankruptcy usually involves the removal of several special legal rights such as the right to sit on a board of directors or, for some professions that form part of the justice system, to practice, such as lawyers or judges. Commercial organizations usually add other non-legal burdens upon bankrupts such as the refusal of credit. The duration of “bankruptcy” status varies from state to state but it does have the benefit of erasing most debts even if they were not satisfied by the sale of the debtor’s assets.

Barrister

A litigation specialist; a lawyer that restricts his or her practice to the court room. In England and some other Commonwealth jurisdictions, a legal distinction is made between barristers and solicitors, the latter with exclusive privileges of advising clients, providing legal advice, and the former with exclusive privileges of appearing in a court on behalf of a client. In other words, solicitors don’t appear in court on a client’s behalf and barristers don’t give legal advice to clients. In England, barristers and solicitors work as a team: the solicitor would typically make the first contact with a client and if the issue cannot be resolved and proceeds to trial, the solicitor would transfer the case to a barrister for the duration of the litigation. Lawyers in some states, such as Canada, sometimes use the title “barrister and solicitor” even though, contrary to England, there is no legal distinction between the advising and litigating roles. Canadian lawyers can litigate or give legal advice, as is the case in the USA, where lawyers are referred to as “attorneys.”

Bill of lading

A document that a transport company possesses acknowledging that it has received goods, and serves as title for the purpose of transportation.

Breach of trust

Any act or omission on the part of the trustee which is inconsistent with the terms of the trust agreement or the law of trusts. A prime example is the redirecting of trust property from the trust to the trustee, personally.

Burden of proof

A rule of evidence that makes a person prove a certain thing or the contrary will be assumed by the court. For example, in criminal trials, the prosecution has the burden of proving the accused guilt because innocence is presumed.

Case law

The entire collection of published legal decisions of the courts which, because of stare decisis, contributes a large part of the legal rules which apply in modern society. If a rule of law cannot be found in written laws, lawyers will often say that it is a rule to be found in “case law”. In other words, the rule is not in the statute books but can be found as a principle of law established by a judge in some recorded case. The word jurisprudence has become synonymous for case law.

Caveat

Latin: let him beware. A formal warning. Caveat emptor means let the buyer beware or that the buyers should examine and check for themselves things which they intend to purchase and that they cannot later hold the vendor responsible for the broken condition of the thing bought.

Chattel

Moveable items of property which are neither land nor permanently attached to land or a building, either directly or vicariously through attachment to real property. A piano is chattel but an apartment building, a tree or a concrete building foundation are not. The opposite of chattel is real property which includes lands or buildings. All property which is not real property is said to be chattel. “Personal property” or “personalty” are other words sometimes used to describe the concept of chattel. The word “chattel” came from the feudal era when “cattle” was the most valuable property besides land.

Chose in action

A right of property in intangible things or which are not in one’s possession, enforceable through legal or court action. Examples may include salaries, debts, insurance claims, shares in companies and pensions.

Civil law

Law inspired by old Roman Law, the primary feature of which was that laws were written into a collection; codified, and not determined, as is common law, by judges. The principle of civil law is to provide all citizens with an accessible and written collection of the laws which apply to them and which judges must follow.

Class action

When different persons combine their lawsuits because the facts and the defendant are so similar. This is designed to save Court time and to allow one judge to hear all the cases at the same time and to make one decision binding on all parties. Class action lawsuits would typically occur after a plane or train accident where all the victims would sue the transportation company together in a class action suit.

Client-solicitor privilege

A right that belongs to the client of a lawyer that the latter keep any information or words spoken to him during the provision of the legal services to that client, strictly confidential. This includes being shielded from testimony before a court of law.

Codicil

An amendment to an existing will. Does not mean that the will is totally changed; just to the extent of the codicil.

Collateral

Property which has been committed to guarantee a loan.

Common law

Judge-made law. Law which exists and applies to a group on the basis of historical legal precedents developed over hundreds of years. Because it is not written by elected politicians but, rather, by judges, it is also referred to as “unwritten” law. Judges seek these principles out when trying a case and apply the precedents to the facts to come up with a judgement. Common law is often contrasted with civil law systems which require all laws to be written in a code or written collection. Common law has been referred to as the “common sense of the community, crystallized and formulated by our ancestors”. Equity law developed after the common law to offset the rigid interpretations medieval English judges were giving the common law. For hundreds of years, there were separate courts in England and its dependents: one for common law and one for equity and the decisions of the latter, where they conflicted, prevailed. It is a matter of legal debate whether or not common law and equity are now “fused.” It is certainly common to speak of the “common law” to refer to the entire body of English law, including common law and equity.

Company

A legal entity, allowed by legislation, which permits a group of people, as shareholders, to create an organization, which can then focus on pursuing set objectives, and empowered with legal rights which are usually only reserved for individuals, such as to sue and be sued, own property, hire employees or loan and borrow money. Also known as a “corporation.” The primary advantage of a company structure is that it provides the shareholders with a right to participate in the profits (by dividends) without any personal liability (the company absorbs the entire liability of the business).

Condition precedent

A contractual condition that suspends the coming into effect of a contract unless or until a certain event takes place. Many residential real estate contracts have a condition precedent which states that the contract is not binding until and unless the property is subjected to an professional inspection, the results of which are satisfactory to the purchaser. Compare with “condition subsequent”.

Condition subsequent

A condition in a contract that causes the contract to become invalid if a certain event occurs. This is different from a condition precedent. The happening of a condition subsequent may invalidate a contract which is, until that moment, fully valid and binding. In the case of a condition precedent, no binding contract exists until the condition occurs.

Consensus

A result achieved through negotiation whereby a hybrid solution is arrived at between parties to an issue, dispute or disagreement, comprising typically of concessions made by all parties, and to which all parties then subscribe unanimously as an acceptable resolution to the issue or disagreement.

Consideration

Under common law, there can be no binding contract without consideration, which was defined in an 1875 English decision as “some right, interest, profit or benefit accruing to the one party, or some forbearance, detriment, loss or responsibility given, suffered or undertaken by the other”. Common law did not want to allow gratuitous offers, those made without anything offered in exchange (such as gifts), to be given the protection of contract law. So they added the criteria of consideration. Consideration is not required in contracts made in civil law systems and many common law states have adopted laws which remove consideration as a prerequisite of a valid contract.

Constitution

The basic law or laws of a nation or a state which sets out how that state will be organized by deciding the powers and authorities of government between different political units, and by stating and the basic principles of society. Constitutions are not necessarily written and may be based on aged customs and conventions, as is the case in England and New Zealand (the USA, Canada and Australia all have written constitutions).

Constructive trust

A trust which a court declares or imposes onto participants of very specific circumstances such as those giving rise to an action for unjust enrichment, and notwithstanding the lack of any willing settlor to declare the trust (contrast with express trusts and resulting trusts).

Contract

An agreement between persons which obliges each party to do or not to do a certain thing. Technically, a valid contract requires an offer and an acceptance of that offer, and, in common law countries, consideration.

Contributory negligence

The negligence of a person which, while not being the primary cause of a tort, nevertheless combined with the act or omission of the primary defendant to cause the tort, and without which the tort would not have occurred.

Conveyance

A written document which transfers property from one person to another. In real-estate law, the conveyance usually refers to the actual document which transfers ownership, between persons living (i.e. other than by will), or which charges the land with another’s interest, such as a mortgage.

Copyright

The exclusive right to produce or reproduce (copy), to perform in public or to publish an original literary or artistic work. Many countries have expanded the definition of a “literary work” to include computer programs or other electronically stored information.

Corporation

A legal entity, allowed by legislation, which permits a group of people, as shareholders (for-profit companies) or members (non-profit companies), to create an organization, which can then focus on pursuing set objectives, and empowered with legal rights which are usually only reserved for individuals, such as to sue and be sued, own property, hire employees or loan and borrow money. Also known as a “company.” The primary advantage of for profit corporations is that it provides its shareholders with a right to participate in the profits (by dividends) without any personal liability because the company absorbs the entire liability of the organization.

Costs

This is a term often used in judgments as in “the defendant will pay costs.” When a person is condemned to “costs” it means that he has to pay all the court costs such as the fees for bringing the action, witness fees and other fees paid out by the other side in bringing the action to justice. A court can also condemn a losing party to “special costs” but this is considered punitive as it would include the other side’s lawyer bill. The rule in most places is that “costs follows the event” which means that the loser pays. In most states, the court has the final say on costs and may decide not to make an order on costs.

Covenant

A written document in which signatories either commit themselves to do a certain thing, to not do a certain thing or in which they agree on a certain set of facts. They are very common in real property dealings and are used to restrict land use such as amongst shopping mall tenants or for the purpose of preserving heritage property. For example, a coventor to a mortgage commits themself to pay the mortgage if the mortgagor defaults.

Creditor

A person to whom money, goods or services are owed by the debtor.

Damages

A cash compensation ordered by a court to offset losses or suffering caused by another’s fault or negligence. Damages are a typical request made of a court when persons sue for breach of contract or tort.

Debtor

A person who owes money, goods or services to another, the latter being referred to as the creditor.

Decree nisi

A provisional decision of a court which does not have force or effect until a certain condition is met such as another petition brought before the court or after the passage of a period time, after which it is called a decree absolute. Although no longer required in many jurisdictions, this was the model for divorce procedures wherein a court would issue A decree nisi, which would have no force or effect until a period of time passed (30 days or 6 months).

Deed

A written and signed document which sets out the things that have to be done or recognitions of the parties towards a certain object. Under older common law, a deed had to be sealed; that is, accompanied not only by a signature but with an impression on wax onto the document. The word deed is also most commonly used in the context of real estate because these transactions must usually be signed and in writing.

De facto

Latin: as a matter of fact; something which, while not necessarily lawful or legally sanctified, exists in fact. A common law spouse may be referred to a de facto wife or de facto husband: although not legally married, they live and carry-on their lives as if married. A de facto government is one which has seized power by force or in any other unconstitutional method and governs in spite of the existence of a de jure government.

Defamation

An attack on the good reputation of a person, by slander or libel.

Defendant

The person, company or organization who defends a legal action taken by a plaintiff and against whom the court has been asked to order damages or specific corrective action redress some type of unlawful or improper action alleged by the plaintiff.

De jure

Latin: “of the law.” The term has come to describe a total adherence of the law. For example, a de jure government is one which has been created in respect of constitutional law and is in all ways legitimate even though a de facto government may be in control.

Demand letter

A letter from a lawyer, on behalf of a client, that demands payment or some other action, which is in default. Demand letters are not always prerequisites for a legal suit but there are exceptions such as legal action on promissory notes or if the contract requires it. Basically, a demand letter sets out why the payment or action is claimed, how it should be carried out (eg. payment in full), directions for the reply and a deadline for the reply. Demand letters are often used in business contexts because they are a courtesy attempt to maintain some goodwill between business parties and they often prompt payment, avoiding expensive litigation. A demand letter often contains the “threat” that if it is not adhered to, the next communication between the parties will be through a court of law in the form of formal legal action.

Demurrer

This is a motion put to a trial judge after the plaintiff has completed his or her case, in which the defendant, while not objecting to the facts presented, and rather than responding by a full defence, asks the court to reject the petition right then and there because of a lack of basis in law or insufficiency of the evidence. This motion has been been abolished in many states and, instead, any such arguments are to be made while presenting a regular defence to the petition.

Deposition

The official statement by a witness taken in writing (as opposed to testimony which where a witnesses give their perception of the facts verbally). Affidavits are the most common kind of depositions.

Descendant

Those person who are born of, or from children of, another are called that person’s descendants. Grandchildren are descendants of their grandfather as children are descendants of their natural parents. The law also distinguishes between collateral descendants and lineal descendants.

Detinue

A common law action similar to conversion and also involving the possession of property by the defendant but belonging to the plaintiff but in which the plaintiff asks the court for the return of the property, although the plaintiff may also ask for damages for the duration of the possession.

Dicta or dictum

Latin: an observation by a judge on a matter not specifically before the court or not necessary in determining the issue before the court; a side opinion which does not form part of the judgment for the purposes of stare decisis. May also be called “obiter dictum.”

Disbursement

Miscellaneous expenses other than lawyer fees and court costs (i.e. filing fees) which paid on behalf of another person and for which reimbursement will eventually be demanded of that person. In a personal liability case, for example, typical disbursements might be expert medical reports, private investigator reports, photocopying and courier costs and the like.

Discretionary trust

A trust in which the settlor has given the trustee full discretion to decide which (and when) members of a group of beneficiaries is to receive either the income or the capital of the trust.

Dissolution

The act of ending, terminating or winding-up a company or state of affairs. For example, when the life of a company is ended by normal legal means, it is said to be “dissolved”. The same is said of marriage or partnerships which, by dissolution, ends the legal relationship between those persons formally joined by the marriage or partnership.

Dividend

A proportionate distribution of profits made in the form of a money payment to shareholders, by a for-profit corporation. Dividends are declared by a company’s board of directors.

Domicile

The permanent residence of a person; a place to which, even if he or she were temporary absent, they intend to return. In law, it is said that a person may have many residences but only one domicile.

Dominant tenement

Used when referring to easements to specify that property (i.e. tenement) or piece of land that benefits from, or has the advantage of, an easement.

Dominion directum

Latin: the qualified ownership of a landlord, not having possession or use of property but retaining ownership. Used in feudal English land systems to describe the King’s ownership of all the land, even though most of it was lent out to lords for their exclusive use and enjoyment.

Dominion utile

Latin: the property rights of a tenant. While not owning the property in a legal sense, the tenant, as having dominion utile, enjoys full and exclusive possession and use of the property.

Donatio mortis causa

A death-bed gift, made by a dying person, with the intent that the person receiving the gift shall keep the thing if death ensues. Such a gift is exempted from the estate of the deceased as property is automatically conveyed upon death. In most jurisdictions, real property cannot be transferred by these death-bed gifts.

Donee

Another word to describe the beneficiary of a trust. Also used to describe the person who is the recipient of a power of attorney; the person who would have to exercise the power of attorney.

Donor

The person who donates property to the benefit of another, usually through the legal mechanism of a trust. The law books of some countries refer to the trust donor as a “settlor.” Also used to describe the person who signs a power of attorney.

Duces tecum

Latin: bring with you. Used most frequently for a species of subpoena (as in “subpoena duces tecum”) which seeks not so much the appearance of a person before a court of law, but the surrender of a thing (eg. a document or some other evidence) by its holder, to the court, to serve as evidence in a trial.

Due process

A term of US law which refers to fundamental procedural legal safeguards of which every citizen has an absolute right when a state or court purports to take a decision that could affect any right of that citizen. The most basic right protected under the due process doctrine is the right to be given notice, and an opportunity to be heard. The term is now also in use in other countries, again to refer to basic fundamental legal rights such as the right to be heard.

Dum casta

Latin: for so long as she remains chaste. Separation agreements years ago used to contain dum casta clauses which said that if the women were to start another relationship, she forfeited her entitlement to maintenance.

Dum sola

Latin: for so long as she remains unmarried.

Dum vidua

Latin: for so long as she remains a widow.

Easement

A right of passage over a neighbor’s land or waterway. An easement is a type of servitude. For every easement, there is a dominant and a servient tenement. Easements are also classified as negative (which prevents the servient land owner from doing certain things) or affirmative easements (the most common, which allows the beneficiary of the easement to do certain things, such as a right-of-way). Although right-of-ways are the most common easements, there are many others such as rights to tunnel under another’s land, to use a washroom, to emit smoke or fumes, to pass over with transmission towers, to access a dock and to access a well.

Enactment

A law or a statute; a document which is published as an enforceable set of written rules is said to be “enacted”.

Endowment

The transfer of money or property (usually as a gift) to a public organization for a specific purpose, such as medical research or scholarships.

Equity

A branch of English law which developed hundreds of years ago when litigants would go to the King and complain of harsh or inflexible rules of common law which prevented “justice” from prevailing. For example, strict common law rules would not recognize unjust enrichment, which was a legal relief developed by the equity courts. The typical Court of Equity decision would prevent a person from enforcing a common law court judgment. The kings delegated this special judicial review power over common law court rulings to chancellors. A new branch of law developed known as “equity”, with their decisions eventually gaining precedence over those of the common law courts. A whole set of equity law principles were developed based on the predominant “fairness” characteristic of equity such as “equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy” or “he who comes to equity must come with clean hands”. Many legal rules, in countries that originated with English law, have equity-based law such as the law of trusts and mortgages.

Escheat

Where property is returned to the government upon the death of the owner, because there is nobody to inherit the property. Escheat is based on the Latin principle of dominion directum as was often used in the feudal system when a tenant died without heirs or if the tenant was convicted of a felony.

Estate law

A term used by the law to decribe that part of the law which regulates wills, probate and other subjects related to the distribution of a deceased person’s “estate”.

Estoppel

A rule of law that when person A, by act or words, gives person B reason to believe a certain set of facts upon which person B takes action, person A cannot later, to his (or her) benefit, deny those facts or say that his (or her) earlier act was improper. A 1891 English court decision summarized estoppel as “a rule of evidence which precludes a person from denying the truth of some statement previously made by himself”.

Executor

A person specifically appointed by a testator to administer the will ensuring that final wishes are respected (i.e. that the will is properly “executed”). An executor is a personal representative.

Exhibit

A document or object shown to the court as evidence in a trial. They are each given a number or letter by the court clerk as they are introduced for future reference during the trial. For example, weapon are frequently given as exhibits in criminal trials. Except with special permission of the court, exhibits are locked up in court custody until the trial is over.

Ex parte

Latin: for one party only. Ex parte refers to those proceedings where one of the parties has not received notice and, therefore, is neither present nor represented. If a person received notice of a hearing and chose not to attend, then the hearing would not be called ex parte. Some jurisdictions expand the definition to include any proceeding that goes undefended, even though proper notice has been given.

Ex patriate

A person who has abandoned his or her country of origin and citizenship and has become a subject or citizen of another country.

Ex post facto

Latin: after the fact. Legislation is called ex post facto if the law attempts to extend backwards in time and punish acts committed before the date of the law’s approval. Such laws are constitutionally prohibited in most modern democracies. For example, the USA Constitution prohibits “any ex post facto law”.

Expropriation

Canada: the forced sale of land to a public authority. Synonymous to the USA doctrine of “eminent domain”.

Express trust

A trust which is clearly created by the settlor, usually in the form of a document (eg. a will), although they can be oral. They are to be contrasted with trusts which come to being through the operation of the law and which do not result from the clear intent or decision of any settlor to create a trust (eg. constructive trust).

Expunge

To physically erase; to white or strike out. To “expunge” something from a court record means to remove every reference to it from the court file.

Executor

A person specifically appointed by a testator to administer the will ensuring that final wishes are respected (i.e. that the will is properly “executed”). An executor is a personal representative.

Exhibit

A document or object shown to the court as evidence in a trial. They are each given a number or letter by the court clerk as they are introduced for future reference during the trial. For example, weapon are frequently given as exhibits in criminal trials. Except with special permission of the court, exhibits are locked up in court custody until the trial is over.

Ex parte

Latin: for one party only. Ex parte refers to those proceedings where one of the parties has not received notice and, therefore, is neither present nor represented. If a person received notice of a hearing and chose not to attend, then the hearing would not be called ex parte. Some jurisdictions expand the definition to include any proceeding that goes undefended, even though proper notice has been given.

Ex patriate

A person who has abandoned his or her country of origin and citizenship and has become a subject or citizen of another country.

Ex post facto

Latin: after the fact. Legislation is called ex post facto if the law attempts to extend backwards in time and punish acts committed before the date of the law’s approval. Such laws are constitutionally prohibited in most modern democracies. For example, the USA Constitution prohibits “any ex post facto law”.

Fair market value

The hypothetical most probable price that could be obtained for a property by average, informed purchasers.

Fee simple

The most extensive tenure allowed under the feudal system allowing the tenant to sell or convey by will or be transfer to a heir if the owner dies intestate. In modern law, almost all land is held in fee simple and this is as close as one can get to absolute ownership in common law.

Fee tail

A form of tenure under the feudal system that could only be transferred to a lineal descendant. If there were no lineal descendants upon the death of the tenant, the land reverted back to the lord.

Felony

A serious crime for which the punishment is prison for more than a year or death. Crimes of less gravity are called misdemeanours. This term is no longer used in England or other Commonwealth countries but remains a major distinction in the United States. Historically, in England, the term referred to crimes for which the punishment was the loss of land, life or a limb.

Feudal system

A social structure that existed throughout much of Europe between 800 and 1400 and that revolved around a multi-level hierarchy between lords (who held land granted under tenure from the king), and their tenants (also called “vassals”).Tenants would lease land from the lord in exchange for loyalty and goods or services, such as military assistance or money. In exchange, the tenant would be protected from attack.

Fiduciary

Normally, the term is synonymous to a trustee, which is the classic form of a fiduciary relationship. A fiduciary has rights and powers which would normally belong to another person. The fiduciary holds those rights which he or she must exercise to the benefit of the beneficiary. A fiduciary must not allow any conflict of interest to infect their duties towards the beneficiary and must exercise a high standard of care in protecting or promoting the interests of the beneficiary. Fiduciary responsibilities exist for persons other than trustees such as between solicitor and client and principal and agent.

Fieri facias

A writ of fieri facias commands a sheriff to take and sell enough property from the person who lost the law suit, to pay the debt owed by the judgment.

Force majeure

French for an act of God; an inevitable, unpredictable act of nature, not dependent on an act of man. Used in insurance contracts to refer to acts of nature such as earthquakes or lightning.

Foreclosure

The technical meaning of the word is to wipe out a right of redemption on a property. Generally, this is what happens when someone does not pay their mortgage. Even though there has been no payments, the borrower retains a equitable right of redemption if, some day, he or she were able to find the money and try to exercise their right of redemption. To clear the title of this potential, a lender goes to court, demonstrates the default, requests that a date be set where the entire amount becomes payable after which, in the absence of payment, the lender is automatically relieved of the requirement to redeem the property back to the borrower; the debtor’s right of redemption is said to be forever barred and foreclosed. This cancels all rights a borrower would have in the property and the property then belongs entirely to the lender, who is then free to possess or sell the property. The word is frequently used to generally refer to the lender’s actions of repossessing and selling a property for default in mortgage payments.

Fraud

Deceitful conduct designed to manipulate another person to give something of value by (1) lying, (2) by repeating something that is or ought to have been known by the fraudulent party as false or suspect or (3) by concealing a fact from the other party which may have saved that party from being cheated. The existence of fraud will cause a court to void a contract and can give rise to criminal liability.

Freehold

A special right granting the full use of real estate for an indeterminate time. It differs from leasehold, which allows possession for a limited time. There are varieties of freehold such as fee simple and fee tail.

Freeholder

A person who owns freehold property rights (i.e. in a piece of real estate; either land or a building).

Fugitive

One who runs away to avoid arrest, prosecution or imprisonment. Many extradition laws also call the suspect a “fugitive” although, in that context, it does not necessarily mean that the suspect was trying to hide in the country from which extradition is being sought.

Functus officio

Latin: an officer or agency whose mandate has expired either because of the arrival of an expiry date or because an agency has accomplished the purpose for which it was created.

Fungibles

Goods which are comprised of many identical parts such as a bushel of grain or a barrel of apples or oil, and which can be easily replaced by other, identical goods. If the goods are sold by weight or number, this is a good sign that they are fungible.

Furiosi nulla voluntas est

A Latin expression that mentally impaired persons cannot validly sign a will.

Garnishment

The seizing of a person’s property, credit or salary, on the basis of a law which allows it, and for the purposes of paying off a debt. The person who possesses the assets of the debtor and is the subject of the seizure is called a “garnishee”. This is frequently used in the enforcement of child support where delinquent debtors will be subjected to salary garnishment. A percentages of their wages is subtracted directly off their pay-check and directed to the person in need of support (the employer being the garnishee).

Gavel

A wooden mallet used by a judge to bring proceedings to a start or to an end or to command attention in his or her court.

Goodwill

An intangible business asset which includes a cultivated reputation and consequential attraction and confidence of repeat customers and connections.

Gross negligence

Any action or an omission in reckless disregard of the consequences to the safety or property of another. Sometimes referred to as “very great negligence” and it is more then just neglect of ordinary care towards others or just inadvertence. Also known as the Latin term culpa lata.

Guarantor

A person who pledges collateral for the contract of another, but separately, as part of an independently contract with the obligee of the original contract. Compare with “surety.”

Guardian

An individual who, by legal appointment or by the effect of a written law, is given custody of both the property and the person of one who is unable to manage their own affairs, such as a child or mentally-disabled person.

Habeas corpus

Latin: a court petition which orders that a person being detained be produced before a judge for a hearing to decide whether the detention is lawful. Habeas corpus was one of the concessions the British Monarch made in the Magna Carta and has stood as a basic individual right against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

Harassment

Unsolicited words or conduct which tend to annoy, alarm or abuse another person. An excellent alternate definition can be found in Canadian human rights legislation as: “a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” Name-calling (“stupid”, “retard” or “dummy”) is a common form of harassment. (See also sexual harassment.)

Hearsay

Any evidence that is offered by a witness of which they do not have direct knowledge but, rather, their testimony is based on what others have said to them. For example, if Bob heard from Susan about an accident that Susan witnessed but that Bob had not, and Bob attempted to repeat Susan’s story in court, it could be objected to as “hearsay.” The basic rule, when testifying in court, is that you can only provide information of which you have direct knowledge. In other words, hearsay evidence is not allowed. Hearsay evidence is also referred to as “second-hand evidence” or as “rumor.” You are able to tell a court what you heard, to repeat the rumor, and testify that, in fact, the story you heard was told to you, but under the hearsay rule, your testimony would not be evidence of the actual facts of the story but only that you heard those words spoken.

Immunity

An exemption that a person (individual or corporate) enjoys from the normal operation of the law such as a legal duty or liability, either criminal or civil. For example, diplomats enjoy “diplomatic immunity” which means that they cannot be prosecuted for crimes committed during their tenure as diplomat. Another example of an immunity is where a witness agrees to testify only if the testimony cannot be used at some later date during a hearing against the witness.

Incorporeal

Legal rights which are intangible such as copyrights or patents.

Incorporeal hereditament

An incorporeal right which is attached to property and which is inheritable. Easements and profits a prendre are examples of incorporeal hereditaments as are hereditary titles such as those common in the United Kingdom.

Indefeasible

A right or title in property that cannot be made void, defeated or canceled by any past event, error or omission in the title. For example, certificates of title issued under a Torrens land titles system is said to be “indefeasible” because the government warrants that no interest burdens the title other than those on the certificate. This makes long and expensive title searches unnecessary.

Injunction

A court order that prohibits a party from doing something (restrictive injunction) or compels them to do something (mandatory injunction).

In limine

Latin: at the beginning or on the threshold. A motion “in limine” is a motion that is tabled by one of the parties at the very beginning of the legal procedures.

In pari delicto

Latin: both parties are equally at fault. Actually, the usual use of this phrase is “in pari delicto, potior est conditio possidentis” which means that where both parties in a dispute are equally at wrong, the person in possession of the contested property will retain it (ie. the law will not intervene).

In personam

Latin: All legal rights are either in personam or in rem. An in personam right is a personal right attached to a specific person. In rem rights are property rights and enforceable against the entire world.

In rem

Latin: All legal rights are either in personam or in rem. In rem rights are proprietary in nature; related to the ownership of property and not based on any personal relationship, as is the case with in personam rights.

Insolvent

A person not able to pay his or her debts as they become due. “Insolvency” is a prerequisite to bankruptcy.

Inter alia

Latin: “among other things”, “for example” or “including”. Legal drafters would use it to precede a list of examples or samples covered by a more general descriptive statement. Sometimes they use an inter alia list to make absolutely sure that users of the document understand that the general description covers a certain element (which was covered in the general description anyway) without, in any way, restricting the scope of the general element to include other things that were not singled out in the inter alia list.

Interlocutory

Proceedings taken during the course of, and incidental to a trial. Examples include procedures or applications made which are to assist a case in preparing its case or of executing judgment once obtained (eg. garnishment or judicial sale). These decisions intervene after the start of a suit and decide some issue other than the final decision itself.

Interlocutory injunction

An injunction which lasts only until the end of the trial during which the injunction was sought.

Intestate

Dying without a will.

Inter vivos

Latin: from one living person to another living person. For example, an inter vivos trust is one which the settlor sets up to take effect while he or she is still alive. It can be contrasted with the testamentary trust, which is to take effect only upon the settlor’s death. Another example is the sale of a life estate which can only occur between persons living; i.e. inter vivos.

Joint and several liability

Liability of more than one person for which each person may be sued for the entire amount of damages done by all.

Joint custody

A child custody decision which means that both parents share joint legal custody and joint physical custody. This is not very common and many professionals have taken to referring to “joint legal custody but sole maternal physical custody” as “joint custody”.

Joint tenancy

When two or more persons are equally owners of some property. The unique aspect of joint tenancy is that as the joint tenancy owners die, their shares accrue to the surviving owner(s) so that, eventually, the entire share is held by one person. A valid joint tenancy is said to require the “four unities”: unity of interest (each joint tenant must have an equal interest including equality of duration and extent), unity of title (the interests must arise from the same document), unity of possession (each joint tenant must have an equal right to occupy the entire property) and unity of time: the interests of the joint tenants must arise at the same time.

Judicial review

When a court decision is appealed, it is known as an “appeal.” But there are many administrative agencies or tribunals which make decisions or deliver government services of one sort or another, the decisions of which can also be “appealed.” In many cases, the “appeal” from administrative agencies is known as “judicial review” which is essentially a process where a court of law is asked to rule on the appropriateness of the administrative agency or tribunal’s decision. Judicial review is a fundamental principle of administrative law. A distinctive feature of judicial review is that the “appeal” is not usually limited to errors in law but may be based on alleged errors on the part of the administrative agency on findings of fact.

Jure

Latin, from Roman law: by right, under legal authority or by the authority of the law. A variation, “juris” means “of right” or “of the law.” See jurisprudence below which means “science of the law.”

Jurisdiction

Refers to a court’s authority to judge over a situation usually acquired in one of three ways: over acts committed in a defined territory (eg. the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Australia is limited to acts committed or originating in Australia), over certain types of cases (the jurisdiction of a bankruptcy court is limited to bankruptcy cases), or over certain persons (a military court has jurisdiction limited to actions of enlisted personnel).

Jurisprudence

Technically, jurisprudence means the “science of law”. Statutes articulate the bland rules of law, with only rare reference to factual situations. The actual application of these statutes to facts is left to judges who consider not only the statute but also other legal rules which might be relevant to arrive at a judicial decision; hence, the “science”. Thus, jurisprudence” has come to refer to case law, or the legal decisions which have developed and which accompany statutes in applying the law against situations of fact.

Jury

A group of citizens randomly selected from the general population and brought together to assist justice by deciding which version, in their opinion, constitutes “the truth” given different evidence by opposing parties.

Jus

Latin: word which, in Roman law, meant the law or a right. Also spelt “ius” in some English translations. For example, public law was called “jus publicum” and private law was called “jus privatum.”

Jus spatiandi et manendi

Latin: referring to a legal right of way, and to enjoyment, granted to the public but only for the purposes of recreation or education, such as upon parks or public squares. Very similar to an easement of which some courts have said a jus spatiandi is a special type.

Justice

Fairness. A state of affairs in which conduct or action is both fair and right, given the circumstances. In law, it more specifically refers to the paramount obligation to ensure that all persons are treated fairly. Litigants “seek justice” by asking for compensation for wrongs committed against them; to right the inequity such that, with the compensation, a wrong has been righted and the balance of “good” or “virtue” over “wrong” or “evil” has been corrected.

Kin

A blood or marriage relative; as in “next of kin” refers to the closest relative.

Landlord

A land or building owner who has leased the land, the building or a part of the land or building, to another person.

Larceny

An old English criminal and common law offence covering the unlawful or fraudulent removal of another’s property without the owner’s consent. The offence of theft now covers most cases of larceny. But larceny is wider than theft as it includes the taking of property of another person by whatever means (by theft, overtly , by fraud, by trickery, etc.) if an intent exists to convert that property to one’s own use against the wishes of the owner.

Law

All the rules of conduct that have been approved by the government and which are in force over a certain territory and which must be obeyed by all persons on that territory (eg. the “laws” of Australia). Violation of these rules could lead to government action such as imprisonment or fine, or private action such as a legal judgement against the offender obtained by the person injured by the action prohibited by law. Synonymous to act or statute although in common usage, “law” refers not only to legislation or statutes but also to the body of unwritten law in those states which recognize common law.

Lawyer

A person that has been trained in the law and that has been certified to give legal advice or to represent others in litigation. Also known as a “barrister & solictor” or an attorney.

Leading question

A question which suggests an answer; usually answerable by “yes” or “no”. For example: “Did you see David at 3 p.m.?” These are forbidden to ensure that the witness is not coached by their lawyer through his or her testimony. The proper form would be: “At what time did you see David?” Leading questions are only acceptable in cross-examination or where a witness is declared hostile.

Lease

A special kind of contract between a property owner and a person wanting temporary enjoyment and use of the property, in exchange for rent paid to the property owner. Where the property is land, a building, or parts of either, the property owner is called a landlord and the person that contracts to receive the temporary enjoyment and use is called a tenant.

Leasehold

Real property held under a lease.

Legal custody

A child custody decision which entails the right to make, or participate in, the significant decisions affecting a child’s health and welfare (compare with physical custody and joint custody).

Legislation

Written and approved laws. Also known as “statutes” or “acts.” In constitutional law, one would talk of the “power to legislate” or the “legislative arm of government” referring to the power of political bodies (eg: house of assembly, Congress, Parliament) to write the laws of the land.

Liability

Any legal obligation, either due now or at some time in the future. It could be a debt or a promise to do something. To say a person is “liable” for a debt or wrongful act is to indicate that they are the person responsible for paying the debt or compensating the wrongful act.

Libel

Defamation by writing such as in a newspaper or a letter.

Liberal construction

A form of construction which allows a judge to consider other factors when deciding the meaning of a phrase or document. For example, faced with an ambiguous article in a statute, a liberal construction would allow a judge to consider the purpose and object of a statute before deciding what the article actually means.

License

A special permission to do something on, or with, somebody else’s property which, were it not for the license, could be legally prevented or give rise to legal action in tort or trespass. A common example is allowing a person to walk across your lawn which, if it were not for the license, would constitute trespass. Licenses are revocable at will (unless supported by a contract) and, as such, differs from an easement (the latter conveying a legal interest in the land). Licenses which are not based on a contract and which are fully revocable are called “simple” or “bare” licenses. A common example is the shopping mall to which access by the public is on the basis of an implied license.

Lien

A property right which remains attached to an object that has been sold, but not totally paid for, until complete payment has been made. It may involve possession of the object until the debt is paid or it may be registered against the object (especially if the object is real estate). Ultimately, a lien can be enforced by a court sale of the property to which it attached and then the debt is paid off from the proceeds of the sale.

Life estate

A right to use and to enjoy land and/or structures on land only for the life of the life tenant. The estate reverts back to the grantor (or to some other person), at the death of the person to whom it is given. A property right to last only for the life of the life tenant is called the estate “pur sa vie.” If it is for the duration of the life of a third party, it is called an estate “pur autre vie”. The rights of the life tenant are restricted to conduct which does not permanently change the land or structures upon it.

Life tenant

The beneficiary of a life estate.

Limited partner

A unique colleague in a partnership relationship who has agreed to be liable only to the extent of his (or her) investment. Limited partners, though, have no right to manage the partnership. Limited partners are usually just investors or promoters who seek the tax benefits of a partnership

Limitrophe

Adjacent, bordering or contiguous.

Lineal descendant

A person who is a direct descendant such as a child to his or her natural parent.

Liquidation

The selling of all the assets of a debtor and the use of the cash proceeds of the sale to pay off creditors.

Lis pendens

Latin: a dispute or matter which is the subject of ongoing or pending litigation. Politicians will sometimes refuse to discuss a matter or an issue which is “lis pendens” because they do not want their comments to be perceived as an attempt to influence a court of law.

Literal construction

A form of construction which does not allow evidence extrapolated beyond the actual words of a phrase or document but, rather, takes a phrase or document at face value, giving effect only to the actual words used. Also known as “strict” or “strict and literal” construction. Contrasts with liberal construction (which allows for the input from other factors such as the purpose of the document being interpreted).

Litigation

A dispute is in “litigation” ( or being “litigated”) when it has become the subject of a formal court action or law suit.

Livery

Delivery. An archaic legal word from the feudal system referring to the actual legal transmission of possession of an object to another. For example, a knight would obtain an estate in land as tenure in exchange for serving in the king’s army for 40 days a year. The king would give exclusive possession of the land, (i.e. “livery”) to the knight. A writ of livery also developed which allowed persons to sue for possession of land under the feudal system. Livery (or “delivery”) of the land was important in completing legal possession or, as it was known in the feudal system, seisin.

Living will

A document that sets out guidelines for dealing with life-sustaining medical procedures in the eventuality of the signatory’s sudden debilitation. Living wills would, for example, inform medical staff not to provide extraordinary life-preserving procedures on their bodies if they are incapable of expressing themselves and suffering from an incurable and terminal condition.

LL.B., L.M. or LL.D.

The Latin abbreviations for the three classes of law degrees: the regular bachelor degree in law (LL.B.), the masters degree in law (LL.M.) and the doctorate in law (LL.D.). These are basic prerequisites to admission to the practice of law in many states.

Locus

Latin for “the place.” For example, lawyers talk of the “locus delicti” as the pace where a criminal offense was commited or “loco parentis” to refer to a person who stands in the place of a parent such as a step-parent in a common law relationship.

Magna Carta

Charter to which subscribed King John of England on June 12, 1215 in which a basic set of limits were set on the King’s powers. King John had ruled tyrannically. His barons rebelled and committed themselves to war with King John unless he agreed to the Charter. Held to be the precursor of habeas corpus as Article 39 of the Magna Carta held that no man shall be “imprisoned, exiled or destroyed … except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land”.

Maintenance

Refers to the obligation of one person to contribute, in part or in whole, to the cost of living of another person. Maintenance is usually expressed in a currency amount per month as in “$450 a month maintenance.” Some countries prefer the words “support” (spousal or child) or “alimony” but they all mean the same thing.

Malfeasance

Doing something which is illegal. Compare with misfeasance and nonfeasance.

Mandamus

A writ which commands an individual, organization (eg. government), administrative tribunal or court to perform a certain action, usually to correct a prior illegal action or a failure to act in the first place.

Manslaughter

Accidental homicide or homicide which occurs without an intent to kill, and which does not occur during the commission of another crime or under extreme provocation.

Maritime law

A very specific body of law peculiar to transportation by water, seamen and harbors.

Marriage

The state-recognized, voluntary and exclusive contract for the lifelong union of two persons. Most countries do not recognize marriage between same-sex couples or polygamous marriages.

Matrimony

The legal state of being married. Ecclesiastics talk of the “holy” state of matrimony.

Mediation

The most popular form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), mediation involves the appointment of a mediator who acts as a facilitator assisting the parties in communicating, essentially negotiating a settlement. The mediator does not adjudicate the issues in dispute or to force a compromise; only the parties, of their own volition, can shift their position in order to achieve a settlement. The result of a successful mediation is called a “settlement.” Compare with arbitration.

Mens rea

Latin for “guilty mind.” Many serious crimes require the proof of “mens rea” before a person can be convicted. In other words, the prosecution must prove not only that the accused committed the offence but that he (or she) did it knowing that it was prohibited; that their act (or omission) was done with an intent to commit a crime.

Minor

A person who is legally underage. It varies between 21 and 18 years of age. Each state sets an age threshold at which time a person is invested with all legal rights as an adult. For many new adults, this may mean access to places serving alcohol and the right to purchase and consume alcohol, smoke cigarettes and drive a car. But there are many other legal rights which a minor does not have such as, in some states, the right to own land, to sign a contract or to get married.

Minutes

The official record of a meeting. Some minutes include a summary (not verbatim) of the discussion along with any resolutions. Other minutes just contain a record of the decisions. Minutes start off with the name of the organization, the place and date of the meeting and the name of those person’s present. Minutes are prepared by the corporate secretary and signed by either the president or secretary.

Misfeasance

Improperly doing something which a person has the legal right to do. Compare with malfeasance and nonfeasance.

Mis-joinder

When a person has been named as a party to a law suit when that person should not have been added. When this is asserted, a court will usually accommodate a request to amend the court documents to strike, or substitute for, the name of the mis-joined party. Compare with non-joinder.

Misrepresentation

A false and material statement which induces a party to enter into a contract. This is a ground for rescission of the contract.

Mistrial

A partial or complete trial which is found to be null and void and of no effect because of some irregularity. The sudden end of trial before it would ordinarily end because of some reason which invalidates it. Once a mistrial is declared, the situation is as if the trial had never occurred. Some common reasons for a mistrial include a deadlocked jury, the death of a juror or a serious procedural and prejudicial mistake made at the trial which cannot be corrected.

Mitigating circumstances

These are facts that, while not negating an offence or wrongful action, tend to show that the defendant may have had some grounds for acting the way he/she did. For example, assault, though provoked, is still assault but provocation may constitute mitigating circumstances and allow for a lesser sentence.

Mitigation of damages

A person who sues another for damages has a responsibility to minimize those damages, as far as reasonable. For example, in a wrongful dismissal suit, the person that was fired should make some effort to find another job so as to minimize the economic damage on themselves.

Modus operandi

Latin: method of operation. Used by law enforcement officials to refer to a criminal’s preferred method of committing crime. For example, car thief “George” may have a break and enter technique that leaves a long scratch mark on the door. Upon discovery of a stolen vehicle with such a mark, the law enforcement officials might include “George” in the list of suspects because the evidence at the crime scene is consistent with his “modus operandi.”

Moiety

Half of something. For example, it can be said that joint tenants hold a moiety in property. In old criminal law, there were “moiety acts” which allowed half of the fine money to be handed over to the informer.

Monopoly

A commercial advantage enjoyed by only one or a select few companies in which only those companies can trade in a certain area. Some monolopoies are legal, such as those temporarily created by patents. Others are secretly built by conspiracy between two or more companies and are prohibited by law.

Moot

Also called a “moot point”: a side issue, problem or question which does not have to be decided to resolve the main issues in a dispute.

Moot court

Fictional or hypothetical trial, usually hosted by law schools, as training for future barristers or litigators.

Moratorium

The temporary suspension of legal action against a person.

Mortgage

An interest given on a piece of land, in writing, to guarantee the payment of a debt or the execution of some action. It automatically becomes void when the debt is paid or the action is executed. In some jurisdictions, it entails a conveyance of the land until the debt is paid in full. The person lending the money and receiving the mortgage is called the mortgagee; the person who concedes a mortgage as security upon their property is called a mortgagor.

Murder

Intentional homicide (the taking of another person’s life), without legal justification or provocation.

Negligence

Not only are people responsible for the intentional harm they cause, but their failure to act as a reasonable person would be expected to act in similar circumstances (i.e. “negligence”) will also give rise to compensation. Negligence, if it causes injury to another, can give rise to a liability suit under tort. Negligence is always assessed having regards to the circumstances and to the standard of care which would reasonably be expected of a person in similar circumstances. Everybody has a duty to ensure that their actions do not cause harm to others. Between negligence and the intentional act there lies yet another, more serious type of negligence which is called gross negligence. Gross negligence is any action or an omission in reckless disregard of the consequences to the safety or property of another. See also contributory negligence and comparative negligence.

Negotiate

To communicate on a matter of disagreement between two parties, with a view to first listen to the other party’s perspective and to then attempt to arrive at a resolution by consensus.

Nemo judex in parte sua

Latin and a fundamental principle of natural justice which states that no person can judge a case in which he or she is party. May also be called nemo judex in sua causa or nemo debet esse judex in propria causa.

Next of kin

The nearest blood relative of a deceased. The expression has come to describe those persons most related to a dead person and therefore set to inherit the decesased’s property.

Nolo contendere

Latin for “I will not defend it.” Used primarily in criminal proceedings whereby the defendant declines to refute the evidence of the prosecution. In some jurisdictions, this response by the defendant has same effect as a plea of guilty.

Non est factum

Latin for “not his deed” and a special defense in contract law to allow a person to avoid having to respect a contract that she or he signed because of certain reasons such as a mistake as to the kind of contract. For example, a person who signs away the deed to a house, thinking that the document signed was only a guarantee for another person’s debt, might be able to plead non est factum in a court and on that basis get the court to void the contract.

Nonfeasance

Not doing something that a person should be doing. Compare with malfeasance and misfeasance.

Non-joinder

When a person who should have been made a party to a legal proceedings has been forgotten or omitted. This is usually addressed by asking the court to amend documents and including the forgotten party to the proceedings. It is the opposite of mis-joinder.

Notwithstanding

In spite of, even if, without regard to or impediment by other things.

Novation

Substitute a new debt for an old debt cancelling the old debt. (Compare with “subrogation”)

Nudum pactum

A contract-law term which stands for those agreements which are without consideration, such as a unilateral undertaking, which may bind a person morally, but not under contract law, in those jurisdictions which still require consideration.

Nuisance

Excessive or unlawful use of one’s property to the extent of unreasonable annoyance or inconvenience to a neighbor or to the public. Nuisance is a tort.

Nunc pro tunc

Latin: now for then. It refers to the doing of something late (after it should have been done in the first place), with effect as if it had been done on time.

Oath

A religious or solemn affirmation to tell the truth or to take a certain action.

Obiter dictum

Latin: an observation by a judge on a matter not specifically before the court or not necessary in determining the issue before the court; a side opinion which does not form part of the judgment for the purposes of stare decisis May also be referred to as “dicta” or “dictum.”

Obligee

The person who is to receive the benefit of someone else’s obligation; that “someone else” being the obligor. Also called a “promisee.” Some countries refer to the recipient of family support as an “obligee”.

Obligor

A person who is contractually or legally, committed or obliged, to providing something to another person; the recipient of the benefit being called the obligee. Also known as the “promisor.”

Obstructing justice

An act which tends to impede or thwart the administration of justice. Examples include trying to bribe a witness or juror or providing law enforcement officers with information known to be false.

Offense

A crime; any act which contravenes the criminal law of the state in which it occurs. Spelled “offence” in Commonwealth countries.

Offer

A explicit proposal to contract which, if accepted, completes the contract and binds both the person that made the offer and the person accepting the offer to the terms of the contract. See also “acceptance”.

Ombudsman

A person whose occupation consists of investigating customer complaints against his or her employer. Many governments have ombudsmen who will investigate citizen complaints against government services.

Onus

Latin: the burden. It is usually used in the context of evidence. The onus of proof in criminal cases lies with the state. It is the state that has the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt. In civil cases, the onus of proof lies with the plaintiff who must prove his case by balance of probabilities. So “onus” refers both to the party with the burden, and to the scope of that burden, the latter depending whether the context is criminal or civil.

Open-ended agreement

An agreement or contract which does not have an ending date but which will continue for as long as certain conditions, identified in the agreement, exist.

Order

A formal written direction given by a member of the judiciary; a court decision without reasons.

Ordinance

An executive decision of a government which has not been subjected to a legislative assembly (contrary to a statute). It is often detailed and not, as would be a statute, of general wording or application. This term is in disuse in many jurisdictions and the words “regulations” or “bylaws” are preferred.

Orphan

A person who has lost one or both of his or her natural parents.

Out-of-court settlement

An agreement between two litigants to settle a matter privately before the Court has rendered its decision.

Paralegal

A person who is not a lawyer or is not acting in that capacity but who provides a limited number of legal services. Each country differs in the authority it gives paralegals in exercising what traditionally would be lawyers’ work.

Pardon

A pardon is a government decision to allow a person who has been convicted of a crime, to be free and absolved of that conviction, as if never convicted. It is typically used to remove a criminal record against a good citizen for a small crime that may have been committed during adolescence or young adulthood. Although procedures vary from one state to another, the request for a pardon usually involves a lengthy period of time of impeccable behavior and a reference check. Generally speaking, the more serious the crime, the longer the time requirement for excellent behavior. In the USA, the power to pardon for federal offenses belongs to the President.

Parens patriae

Latin: A British common law creation whereby the courts have the right to make unfettered decisions concerning people who are not able to take care of themselves. For example, court can make custody decisions regarding a child or an insane person, even without statute law to allow them to do so, based on their residual, common law-based parens patriae jurisdiction.

Pari delicto

Latin for “of equal fault.” For example, if two parties complain to a judge of the non-performance of a contract by the other, the judge could refuse to provide a remedy to either of them because of “pari delicto”: a finding that they were equally at fault in causing the contract’s breach.

Pari passu

Latin: Equitably and without preference. This term is often used in bankruptcy proceedings where creditors are said to be “pari passu” which means that they are all equal and that distribution of the assets will occur without preference between them.

Parole

An early release from incarceration in which the prisoner promises to heed certain conditions (usually set by a parole board) and under the supervision of a parole officer. Any violation of those conditions would result in the return of the person to prison.

Parricide

Killing one’s father or another a family member or close relative.

Partnership

A business organization in which two or more persons carry on a business together. Partners are each fully liable for all the debts of the enterprise but they also share the profits exclusively. Many states have laws which regulate partnerships and may, for example, require some form of registration and allow partnership agreements. One of the basic advantages of partnerships is that they tend to allow business losses to be deducted from personal income for tax purposes (see also limited partner).

Paternity

Being a father. “Paternity suits” are launched when a man denies paternity of a child born out of wedlock. New technology of DNA testing can establish paternity thus obliging the father to provide child support.

Payee

The person to whom payment is addressed or given. In family law, the term usually refers to the person who receives or to whom support or maintenance is owed. In commercial law, the term refers to the person to whom a bill of exchange is made payable. On a regular check, the space preceded with the words “pay to the order of” identifies the payee.

Payor

The person who is making the payment(s). Again, in the context of family law, the word would typically refer to the person to a support or maintenance debtor.

Peremptory

Final or absolute or not open to challenge. An adjournment to a date which is set to be “peremptory” means that ther matter will go ahead on that date with no further applications for adjournment to be granted.

Perjury

An intentional lie given while under oath or in a sworn affidavit.

Person

An entity with legal rights and existence including the ability to sue and be sued, to sign contracts, to receive gifts, to appear in court either by themselves or by lawyer and, generally, other powers incidental to the full expression of the entity in law. Individuals are “persons” in law unless they are minors or under some kind of other incapacity such as a court finding of mental incapacity. Many laws give certain powers to “persons” which, in almost all instances, includes business organizations that have been formally registered such as partnerships, corporations or associations.

Personal representative

In the law of wills, this is the general name given to the person who administers the estate of a deceased person. There are two kinds of personal representatives. Where a person dies without a will, the court must appoint an administrator. Where a personal representative is named in a will, the personal representative is known as an executor.

Petition

The formal, written document submitted to a court, and which asks for the court to redress what is described in the petition as being an injustice of some kind. Petitions set out the facts, identifies the law under which the court is being asked to intervene, and ends with a suggested course of action for the court to consider (eg. payment of damages to the plaintiff). Petitions are normally filed by lawyers because courts insist on complicated forms but most states will allow citizens to file petitions provided they conform to the court’s form. Some states do not use the word “petition” and, instead, might refer to an “application”, a “complaint” or the “writ.”

Pleadings

That part of a party’s case in which he or she formally sets out the facts and legal arguments which support that party’s position. Pleadings can be in writing or they can be made verbally to a court, during the trial.

Postal rule

A rule of contract law that makes an exception to the general rule that an acceptance is only created when communicated directly to the offeror. An acceptance is binding and the contract is said to be perfected when the acceptor places this acceptance in the mail box for return mail even if, in fact, it never reaches the offeror. An 1892 British case summarized it as follows: “Where the circumstances are such that it must have been within the contemplation of the parties that, according to the ordinary usages of mankind, the post might be used as a means of communicating the acceptance of an offer, the acceptance is complete as soon as it is posted.”

Power of attorney

A document which gives a person the right to make binding decisions for another, as an agent. A power of attorney may be specific to a certain kind of decision or general, in which the agent makes all major decisions for the person who is the subject of the power of attorney. The person signing the power of attorney is usually referred to, in law, as the donor and the person that would exercise the power of attorney, the donee.

Pracipe or precipe

Latin: used to refer to the actual writ that would be presented to a court clerk to be officially issued on behalf of the court but now mostly refers to the covering letter from the lawyer (or plaintiff) which accompanies and formally asks for the writ to be issued by the court officer. The precipe is kept on the court file, but does not accompany the writ when the latter is served on the defendant.

Praemunire

An offence against the King or Parliament, in old English law, which led to serious penalties but not capital punishment.

Precedent

A case which establishes legal principles to a certain set of facts, coming to a certain conclusion, and which is to be followed from that point on when similar or identical facts are before a court. Precedent form the basis of the theory of stare decisis which prevent “reinventing the wheel” and allows citizens to have a reasonable expectation of the legal solutions which apply in a given situation.

Presumption of advancement

A presumption in trust, contract and family law which suggests that property transferred from a parent to a child, or spouse to spouse, is a gift and would defeat any presumption of a resulting trust.

Prima facie

(Latin) A legal presumption which means “on the face of it” or “at first sight”. Law-makers will often use this device to establish that if a certain set of facts are proven, then another fact is established prima facie. For example, proof of mailing a letter is prima facie proof that it was received by the person to whom it was addressed and will accepted as such by a court unless proven otherwise. Other situations may require a prima facie case before proceeding to another step in the judicial process so that you would have to at least prove then that at first glance, there appears to be a case.

Principal

An agent’s master; the person for whom an agent has received instruction and to whose benefit the agent is expected to perform and make decisions.

Private law

Law which regulates the relationships between individuals. Family, commercial and labor law are examples of private law because the focus of those kinds of laws is the relationships between individuals or between corporations or organizations and individual, with the government a bystander. They are the counter part to public law.

Privilege

A special and exclusive legal advantage or right such as a benefit, exemption, power or immunity. An example would be the special privileges that some persons have in a bankruptcy to recoup their debts from the bankrupt’s estate before other, non-privileged creditors.

Probate

The formal certificate given by a court that certifies that a will has been proven, validated and registered and which, from that point on, gives the executor the legal authority to execute the will. A “probate court” is a name given to the court that has this power to ratify wills.

Probation

A kind of punishment given out as part of a sentence which means that instead of jailing a person convicted of a crime, a judge will order that the person reports to a probation officer regularly and according to a set schedule. It is a criminal offence not to obey a probation order and is cause for being immediately jailed. If someone is “on probation”, that means that they are presently under such a Court order. These orders may have special conditions attached to them such as not to leave the city, drink alcohol, consume drugs, not to go to a specific place or contact a certain person.

Pro bono

Provided for free. Pro bono publico means “for the public good.”

Profit a prendre

A servitude which resembles an easement and which allows the holder to enter the land of another and to take some natural produce such as mineral deposits, fish or game, timber, crops or pasture.

Pro forma

As a matter of form; in keeping with a form or practice. Something done pro forma may not be essential but it facilitates future dealings. For example, an invoice might be sent to a purchaser even before the goods are delivered as a matter of business practices.

Promisee

A person whom is to be the beneficiary of a promise, an obligation or a contract. Synonymous to “obligee.”

Promisor

The person who has become obliged through a promise (usually expressed in a contract) towards another, the intended beneficiary of the promise being referred to as the promisee. Also sometimes referred to a “obligor.”

Promissory note

An unconditional, written and signed promise to pay a certain amount of money, on demand or at a certain defined date in the future. Contrary to a bill of exchange, a promissory note is not drawn on any third party holding the payor’s money; it is a direct promise from the payor to the payee.

Property

Property is commonly thought of as a thing which belongs to someone and over which a person has total control. But, legally, it is more properly defined as a collection of legal rights over a thing. These rights are usually total and fully enforceable by the state or the owner against others. It has been said that “property and law were born and die together. Before laws were made there was no property. Take away laws and property ceases.” before laws were written and enforced, property had no relevance. Possession was all that mattered. There are many classifications of property, the most common being between real property or immoveable property (real estate such as land or buildings) and “chattel”, or “moveable” (things which are not attached to the land such as a bicycle, a car or a hammer) and between public (property belonging to everybody or to the state) and private property.

Propinquity

Nearness in place; close-by. Also used to describe relationships as synonymous for “kin.”

Pro possessore

As a possessor. For example, a person may exercise certain rights over a thing not as owner but pro possessore: as a person who possesses, but does not own, the thing.

Propound

To offer a document as being authentic or valid. Used mostly in the law of wills; to propound a will means to take legal action, as part of probate, including a formal inspection of the will, by the court.

Pro rata

Latin: to divide proportionate to a certain rate or interest. For example, if a company with two shareholders, one with 25% and the other with 75% of the shares, received a gift of $10,000 and desired to split it “pro rata” between the shareholders, the shareholder with 25% of the shares would receive $2,500 and the 75% shareholder, $7,500.

Proprietor

Owner.

Pro se

Latin: in one’s personal behalf. Contrast with pro socio.

Pro socio

Latin: on behalf of a partner; not on one’s personal behalf.

Prosecute

To bring judicial proceedings against a person and to administer them until the conclusion of the court proceedings. Lawyers are hired by the government to administer the prosecution of criminal charges in the courts.

Prospectus

A document in which a corporation sets out the material details of a share or bond issue and inviting the public to invest by purchasing these financial instruments.

Pro tempore

Latin: something done temporarily only and not intended to be permanent.

Proxy

A right which is signed-over to an agent. Proxies are used frequently at annual meetings of corporations where the right to exercise a vote is “proxied” from the shareholder to the agent.

Public domain

A term of American copyright law referring to works that are not copyright protected, free for all to use without permission. Examples include works that were originally non-copyrightable (items that by their very nature are not eligible for copyright such as ideas, facts or names), copyright that has been lost or expired, where copyright is owned or authored by the federal government (federal documents and publications are not copyrighted and so are public domain), and those works which have been specifically granted to the public domain.

Public law

Those laws which regulate (1) the structure and administration of the government, (2) the conduct of the government in its relations with its citizens, (3) the responsibilities of government employees and (4) the relationships with foreign governments. Good examples are criminal and constitutional law. It can be distinguished from private law, which regulates the private conduct between individuals, without direct involvement of the government. For example, an unsolicited punch in the nose would constitute a crime for which the government would prosecute under criminal law but for which there would also be a private legal action possible by the injured party under tort law, which is private law although governments can be held responsible under tort law. As you can see, the line is often hard to draw between public and private law.

Punitive damages

Special and highly exceptional damages ordered by a court against a defendant where the act or omission which caused the suit, was of a particularly heinous, malicious or highhanded nature. Where awarded, they are an exception to the rule that damages are to compensate not to punish. The exact threshold of punitive damages varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some countries, and in certain circumstances, punitive damages might even be available for breach of contract cases but, again, only for the exceptional cases where the court wants to give a strong message to the community that similar conduct will be severely punished. They are most common in intentional torts such as rape, battery or defamation. Some jurisdictions prefer using the word “exemplary damages” and there is an ongoing legal debate whether there is a distinction to be made between the two and even with the concept of aggravated damages.

Quantum

Latin: amount or extent.

Quantum meruit

Latin for “as much as is deserved.” This is a legal principle under which a person should not be obliged to pay, nor should another be allowed to receive, more than the value of the goods or services exchanged.

Quasi-judicial

Refers to decisions made by administrative tribunals or government officials to which the rules of natural justice apply. In judicial decisions, the principles of natural justice always apply. But between routine government policy decisions and the traditional court forums lies a hybrid, sometimes called a “tribunal” or “administrative tribunal” and not necessarily presided by judges. These operate as a government policy-making body at times but also exercise a licensing, certifying, approval or other adjudication authority which is “judicial” because it directly affects the legal rights of a person. Some law teachers sugest that there is no such thing as a “quasi-judicial” decision or body; the body or decision is either judicial or not.

Quid pro quo

Latin: something for something. The giving of something in exchange for another thing of equal value.

Quorum

The number of people who must be present at a meeting before business can be conducted. Without “quorum”, decisions are invalid. Many organizations have a quorum requirement to prevent decisions being taken without a majority of members present.

Quo warranto

Latin and referring to a special legal procedure taken to stop a person or organization from doing something for which it may not have the legal authority, by demanding to know by what right they exercise the controversial authority.

Real property

Immoveable property such as land or a building or an object that, though at one time a chattel, has become permanently affixed to land or a building.

Rebuttable presumption

Usually, every element of a case must be proven to a judge or a jury. The exception is a “presumption”, which means that if certain other facts are proven, then another fact can be taken for granted by the judge (or jury). For example, in some states, an adult caught having intercourse with a minor is presumed as having known that the minor was under-age. Most presumptions are “rebuttable”, which means that the person against whom the presumption applies may present evidence to the contrary, which then has the effect of nullifying the presumption. This then deprives the person that tried to use the presumption with the advantage of the “free” evidence and makes him present evidence to support the fact which might have been proven by the presumption.

Redemption

Buying back. When a vendor later buys the property back. A right of redemption gives the vendor the right to buy back the property. In some jurisdictions where a mortgage transfers title to the lender until the mortgage is paid off, the “buying back” of the property is known as redemption.

Remainder

A right to future enjoyment or ownership of real property. The “left-over” after property has been conveyed first to another party. A remainder interest is what if left-over after a life estate has run its course. Contrary to a reversion, a remainder does not go to the grantor or his (or her) heirs.

Rent

This is the consideration paid by a tenant to a landlord in exchange for the exclusive use and enjoyment of land, a building or a part of a building. Under normal circumstances, the rent is paid in money and at regular intervals, such as the first of every month. The word has also come to be used as a verb as in to “rent an apartment”, although the proper legal term would be to “lease an apartment.”

Rescind

To abrogate or cancel a contract putting the parties in the same position they would have been in had there been no contract. Rescission can occur in one of two ways: either a contract can be set aside (rescinded) because of some defect in its formation (such as misrepresentation, duress or undue influence) or it can be set aside by agreement by the parties, for example if they reach a new agreement.

Res gestae

Latin for “things done.” A peculiar rule, used mostly in criminal cases, which allows hearsay if the statement is made during the excitement of the litigated event. For example, the words “stick ’em up!” used during an armed robbery would be admissible in evidence under the res gestae rule. So, too, would spontaneous statements made by the defendant during or right after the crime. Some laws even allow res gestae statements to be introduced in evidence in special kinds of prosecutions. For example, in child sexual abuse cases, the statement made by a child to another person may be allowed as evidence even though, technically, it offends the rule against hearsay. This is to recognize the trauma of having a child testify in open court on the subject of her or his abuse. Res gestae evidence usually requires a voir dire hearing before it is admissible unless the defense allows it to be put on the trial record unchallenged.

Res ipsa loquitur

A word used in tort to refer to situations where negligence is presumed on the defendant since the object causing injury was in his or her control. This is a presumption which can be rebutted by showing that the event was an inevitable accident and had nothing to do with the defendant’s responsibility of control or supervision. An example of res ipsa loquitur would be getting hit by a rock which flies off a passing dump truck. The event itself imputes negligence (res ipsa loquitur) and can only be defeated if the defendant can show that the event was a total and inevitable accident.

Res judicata

Latin: A matter which has already been conclusively decided by a court.

Respondent

The party that “responds to” a claim filed in court against them by a plaintiff. The more common term is defendant. The word is also used to refer to the party who wins at the first court level but who must then respond to an appeal launched by the party that lost the case at the first court level (upon appeal, this latter person is called the appelant).

Restitutio in integrum

Latin for restitution to the original position. In contract law, upon breach of contract, the injured party may ask the court to reverse the contract and revert the parties to their respective positions before the contract was accepted. But if the court finds that restitutio in integrum is not possible because of actions or events occurring since the date of acceptance, then the court may order that damages be paid instead.

Restitution

Under ancient English common law, when a party enforced a court judgement and then that judgement was overturned on appeal, the appellant could ask the appeal court for “restitution”, or financial compensation placing that appellant in the same position as if the original legal decision had not been enforced. A new strain of common law has also developed called “restitution”, closely associated with unjust enrichment, whereby a person is deprived of something of value belonging to them, can ask a court to order “restitution”. The best example is asking a court to reverse or correct a payment made in error.

Resulting trust

A trust that is presumed by the court from certain situations. Similar to a constructive trust but for resulting trusts, the court presumes an intention to create a trust; the law assumes that the property is not held by the right person and that the possessor is only holding the property “in trust” for the rightful owner. In constructive trusts, the courts don’t even bother with presuming an intention; they simply impose a trust from the facts.

Retainer

A contract between a lawyer and his (or her) client, wherein the lawyer agrees to represent and provide legal advice to the client, in exchange for money. The signed retainer begins the client-lawyer relationship from which flow many responsibilities and duties, primarily on the lawyer, including to provide accurate legal advice, to monitor limitation dates and to not allow any conflict of interest with the relationship with the client.

Reversion

A future interest left in a transferror or his (or her) heirs. A reservation in a real property conveyance that the property reverts back to the original owner upon the occurence of a certain event. For example, Jim gives Bob a bulding using the words “to Bob for life”. Upon the death of Bob, the property reverts back to Jim or to Jim’s heirs. Differs from a remainder in that a remainder takes effect by an act of the parties involved. A reversion takes effect by operation of the law. Nor is a reversion a “left-over” as is a remainder. Rather, it reverts the entire property.

Right of first refusal

A right given to a person to be the first person allowed to purchase a certain object if it is ever offered for sale. The owner of this right is the first to be offered the designated object if it is ever to be offered for sale.

Search warrant

A court order (i.e. signed by a judge) that gives a police the permission to enter private property and to search for evidence of the commission of a crime, for the proceeds of crime or property that the police suspect may be used to commit a crime. These court orders are obtained on the basis of a sworn statement by the requesting law enforcement officer and will precisely describe the place to be searched and, in some cases, the exact property being sought.

Seisin

The legal possession of property. In law, the term refers more specifically to the possession of land by a freeholder. For example, a owner of a building has seisin, but a tenant does not, because the tenant, although enjoying possession, does not have the legal title in the building.

Sentence

The punishment given to a person who has been convicted (i.e. found to be guilty) of a crime. It may be time in jail, community service or a period of probation.

Sequestration

The taking of someone’s property, voluntarily (by deposit) or involuntarily (by seizure), by court officers or into the possession of a third party, awaiting the outcome of a trial in which ownership of that property is at issue.

Servient tenement

The land which suffers or has the burden of an easement. The beneficiary of the easement is called a dominant tenement.

Servitude

From Roman law, referring to rights of use over the property of another; a burden on a piece of land causing the owner to suffer access by another. An easement is type of servitude as is a profit a prendre.

Settlor

The person who actually creates a trust by donating property to be managed and administered by a trustee but from which all profits would go to a beneficiary. The law books of some countries refer to this person as a “donor.”

Sexual harassment

A term used in human rights legislation and referring primarily to harassment in employment situations, related to sex or gender, which detrimentally affects the working environment. The most overt variation of sexual harassment is the quid pro quo offer of work-favor in exchange for sexual favor.

Sexual intercourse

Penetration of a man’s penis into a woman’s vagina.

Share

A portion of a company bought by a transfer of cash in exchange for a certificate, the certificate constituting proof of share ownership. Persons owning shares in a company are called “shareholders”. There are two basic kinds of shares: common and preferred. A shareholder is not liable for the debts or other obligations of the company except to the extent of any commitment made to buy shares. The two other benefits of shares include a right to participate in profits (through dividends) and the right to share the residue of assets of the company, once liabilities have been paid off, if it is ever dissolved.

Shareholder agreement

A contract between the shareholders of the company and the company itself, in which certain things, usually the purview of the board of directors, are detailed. For example, a shareholder might be allowed to manage the company, instead of a board of directors. The shareholder agreement will also, typically, control inflows to the company (purchase of shares), how profits are to be distributed, dispute resolution and what to do if a shareholder dies.

Silent partner

A person who invests in a company or partnership but does not take part in administering or directing the organization; he or she just shares in the profits or losses.

Sine die

Adjourned without giving any future date of meeting or hearing. A court that adjourns sine die essentially dismisses the case by saying that it never wants to hear the case again! A meeting which adjourns sine die has simply not set a date for it’s next meeting.

Slander

Verbal or spoken defamation.

Solicitor

A lawyer that restricts his or her practice to the giving of legal advice and does not normally litigate. that court room. In England and some other Commonwealth jurisdictions, a legal distinction is made between solicitors and barristers, the former with exclusive privileges of giving oral or written legal advice, and the latter with exclusive privileges of preparing and conducting litigation in the courts. In other words, solicitors don’t appear in court on a client’s behalf and barristers don’t give legal advice to clients. In England, barristers and solicitors work as a team: the solicitor would typically make the first contact with a client and if the issue cannot be resolved and proceeds to trial, the solicitor would transfer the case to a barrister for the duration of the litigation. Lawyers in some states, such as Canada, sometimes use the title “barrister and solicitor” even though, contrary to England, there is no legal distinction between the advising and litigating roles. Canadian lawyers can litigate or give legal advice (as is the case in the USA, where lawyers are referred to as “attorneys”).

Sovereign

Has two meanings. The first one is a technical word for the monarch (king or queen) of a particular country as in “the Sovereign of England is Queen Elizabeth.” The other meaning of the word is to describe the supreme legislative powers of a state: that they are totally independent and free from any outside political control or authority over their decisions. The people of Quebec, for example, has, at times, supported governments which have proposed that Quebec become a “sovereign” state; that all legislative authority of the government of Canada over their territory cease and that the government of Quebec be enabled to regulate in any matter at all; and that the government of Quebec represent itself internationally.

Split custody

A child custody decision which means that legal custody goes back and forth between parents like a ping-pong ball, as they, in turn, take care of the child. They are very rare (for example, only 5% of all custody orders in the USA) because they works against consistent upbringing decisions for the child. Also known as “divided custody” although the latter concept is mostly used to describe split custody over greater periods of time such as alternate years with each parent.

Stare decisis

A basic principle of the law whereby once a decision (a precedent) on a certain set of facts has been made, the courts will apply that decision in cases which subsequently come before it embodying the same set of facts. A precedent which is binding; must be followed.

Statutory trust

A trust created by the effect of a statute. They are usually temporary in nature and serve the purpose of bridging ownership of property to benefit a certain class of individuals which the statute is designed to protect. Some examples are the temporary trusts that the law of some states impose on the executor of an estate, the holding and administration of tax or other pay deductions (including vacation pay) by employers, the trust accounts of lawyers and the statutory trust on money paid for a construction project on behalf of any person who might have a construction lien on the property.

Stirpes

Latin: the offspring of a person; his or her descendants. For example, inheriting per stirpes means having a right to a deceased’s estate because you happen to be a descendant of the deceased.

Strict liability

Tort liability which is set upon the defendant without need to prove intent, negligence or fault; as long as you can prove that it was the defendant’s object that caused the damage.

Subpoena

Latin: an order of a court which requires a person to be present at a certain time and place or suffer a penalty (subpoena means, literally, “under penalty”). This is the traditional tool used by lawyers to ensure that witnesses present themselves at a given place, date and time to make themselves available to testify (see also duces tecum).

Subrogation

When you pay off someone’s debt and then try to get the money from the debtor yourself. (Compare with “novation”.)

Subservient tenement

The real property that supports or endures an easement. The real property benefitting from an easement is called the dominant tenement.

Substituted service

If a party appears to be avoiding service of court documents, a request may be made with the court to, instead of personal service (i.e. giving the document directly to the person), that the document be published in a local newspaper, served on a person believed to frequent the person or mailed to his (or her) last known address.

Successor

A person who takes over the rights of another.

Tenant

A person to whom a landlord grants temporary and exclusive use of land or a part of a building, usually in exchange for rent. The contract for this type of legal arrangement is called a lease. The word “tenant” originated under the feudal system, referring to land “owners” who held their land on tenure granted by a lord.

Tenants in common

Similar to joints tenants. All tenants in common share equal property rights except that, upon the death of a tenant in common, that share does not go to the surviving tenants but is transferred to the estate of the deceased tenant. Unity of possession but distinct titles.

Tender

An unconditional offer of a party to a contract to perform their part of the bargain. For example, if the contract is a loan contract, a tender would be an act of the debtor where he produces the amount owing and offers to the creditor. In real property law, when a party suspects that the other may be preparing to renege, he or she can write a tender in which they unequivocally re-assert their intention to respect the contract and tender their end of the bargain; either by paying the purchase or delivering the title.

Tenement

Property that could be subject to tenure under English land law; usually land, buildings or apartments. The word is rarely used nowadays except to refer to dominant or servient tenements when qualifying easements.

Tenure

A right of holding or occupying land or a position for a certain amount of time. The term was first used in the English feudal land system, whereby all land belonged to the king but was lent out to lords for a certain period of time; the lord never owning, but having tenure in the land. Used in modern law mostly to refer to a position a person occupies such as in the expression “a judge holds tenure for life and on good behavior.”

Testamentary trust

A trust which is to take effect only upon the death of the settlor and is commonly found as part of a will. Trusts which take effect during the life of the settlor are called inter vivos trusts.

Testator

A person who dies with a valid will.

Testimony

The verbal presentation of a witness in a judicial proceeding.

Torrens land registration system

A land registration system invented by Robert Torrens and in which the government is the keeper of the master record of all land and their owners. In the Torrens system, a land title certificate suffices to show full, valid and indefeasible title. Used in Australia and several Canadian provinces.

Tort

Derived from the Latin word tortus which meant wrong. In French, “tort” means a wrong”. Tort refers to that body of the law which will allow an injured person to obtain compensation from the person who caused the injury. Every person is expected to conduct themselves without injuring others. When they do so, either intentionally or by negligence, they can be required by a court to pay money to the injured party (“damages”) so that, ultimately, they will suffer the pain cause by their action. Tort also serves as a deterrent by sending a message to the community as to what is unacceptable conduct.

Tort-feasor

Name given to a person or persons who have committed a tort.

Trust

Property given by a person called the donor or settlor, to a trustee, for the benefit of another person (the beneficiary or donee). The trustee manages and administers the property, actual ownership is shared between the trustee and the beneficiary and all the profits go to the beneficiary. The word “fiduciary” can be used to describe the responsibilities of the trustee towards the beneficiary. A will is a form of trust but trusts can be formed during the lifetime of the settlor in which case it is called an inter vivos or living trust.

Trustee

The person who holds property rights for the benefit of another through the legal mechanism of the trust. A trustee usually has full management and administration rights over the property but these rights must always be exercised to the full advantage of the beneficiary. All profits from the property go to the beneficiary although the trustee is entitled to reimbursement for administrative costs. There is no legal impediment for a trustee to also be a beneficiary of the same property.

Ultra vires

Without authority. An act which is beyond the powers or authority of the person or organization which took it.

Unjust enrichment

A legal procedure whereby you can seek reimbursement from another who benefitted from your action or property without legal justification. There are said to be three conditions which must be met before you can get a court to force reimbursement based on “unjust enrichment”: an actual enrichment or benefit to the defendant, a corresponding deprivation to the plaintiff, and the absence of a legal reason for the defendant’s enrichment. For example (and only theoretically as many countries have laws which have modified equity law in some situations), if you found somebody else’s cash and spent it, you might be sued for reimbursement under unjust enrichment. The legal theory behind unjust enrichment is the constructive trust, which the court imposes upon the circumstances to hold the person unjustly enriched as the trustee for the person who should properly get the property back, held to be the beneficiary of the constructive trust.

Usury

Excessive or illegal interest rate. Most countries now prohibit interest rates above a certain level; and rates which exceed these levels are called “usury”.

Vendor

The seller; the person selling.

Verdict

The decision of a jury. In criminal cases, this is usually expressed as “guilty” or “not guilty”.In a civil case, the verdict would be a finding for the plaintiff or for the defendant.

Vicarious liability

When a person is held responsible for the tort of another even though the person being held responsible may not have done anything wrong. This is often the case with employers who are held vicariously liable for the damages caused by their employees.

Voidable

The law distinguishes between contracts which are void and those which are voidable. Some contracts have such a latent defect that they are said to be void (see definition of “void” above). Other have more minor defects to them and are voidable at the option of the party victimized by the defect. For example, contracts signed by a person when they are totally drunk are voidable by that person upon recovering sobriety.

Voir dire

A mini-hearing held during a trial on the admissibility of contested evidence. For example, a defendant may object to a plaintiff’s witness. The court would suspend the trial, immediately preside over a hearing on the standing of the proposed witness, and then resume the trial with or without the witness, or with any restrictions placed on the testimony by the judge as a result of the voir dire ruling. In a jury trial, the jury would be excused during the voir dire.

Volenti non fit injuria

Voluntary assumption of risk. A defence in tort that means where a person engages in an event accepting and aware of the risks inherent in that event, then they can not later complain of, or seek compensation for an injury suffered during the event. This is used most often to defend against tort actions as a result of a sports injury.

Waiver

When a person disclaims or renounces to a right that they may have otherwise had. Waivers are not always in writing. Sometimes a person’s actions can be interpreted as a waiver.

Warranty

A guarantee given on the performance of a product or the doing of a certain thing. For example, many consumer products come with warranties under which the manufacturer will repair or replace any product that fails during the warranty period; the commitment to repair or replace being the “warranty”.

Will

A written and signed statement, made by an individual, which provides for the disposition of their property when they die.

Without prejudice

A statements set onto a written document which qualifies the signatory as exempted from it’s content to the extent that they may be interpreted as containing admissions or other interpretations which could later be used against the person signing; or as otherwise affecting any legal rights of the person signing. A lawyer will often send a letter “without prejudice” in case the letter makes admissions which could later prove inconvenient to the client.

Witness

The regular definition of this word is a person who perceives an event (by seeing, hearing, smelling or other sensory perception). The legal definition refers to the court-supervised recital of that sensory experience, in writing (deposition) or verbally (testimony).

Writ

An official court document, signed by a judge or bearing an official court seal, which commands the person to whom it is addressed, to do something specific. That “person” is typically either a sheriff (who may be instructed to seize property, for example) or a defendant (for whom the writ is the first notice of formal legal action. In these cases, the writ would command the person to answer the charges laid out in the suit, or else judgment may be made against them in their absence).

Wrongful death

An American tort law action which claims damages from any person who, through negligence or direct act or omission, caused the death of certain relatives (eg. spouse, children or parent). These actions are commenced under special “wrongful death” statutes because under the common law, there is no right of action for survivors for their own loss as a result of someone’s death. The Canadian equivalent of the wrongful death legislation is generally known as the “fatal accidents act.” In England, it is known as Lord Campbell’s Act.

Wrongful dismissal

Being fired from a job without an adequate reason or without any reason whatsoever. Employees do not have a right to a job for life and can be dismissed for economic or performance reasons but they cannot be dismissed capriciously. Most employment implies an employment contract, which may be supplemented by labor legislation. Either could provide for certain procedures to be followed, failing which any firing is wrongful dismissal and for which the employee could ask a court for damages against the employer. Can also be referred to as “dismissal without just cause.” Not all states recognize this tort law action.

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