Legal words: what do they mean?

Judith Thompson

Are you dealing with a claim on your own and struggling to get to grips with legal terminology? Or perhaps your solicitor is writing to you using language you don't understand. 

Our glossary of legal terms is here to help.

Glossary of Legal Terms

Affidavit - a statement in writing, often used in court proceedings, promising to tell the truth. 

Arbitration - an alternative to court proceedings, where the dispute is dealt with by an arbitrator rather than a judge. Arbitration proceedings can be held in private, unlike most court proceedings. 

Assured Shorthold Tenancy - a tenancy which lasts for six months, after which time the tenant has no right to remain in the property, provided the landlord has given the tenant a valid notice to leave.

Attorney - the person to whom powers are granted in a power of attorney (see below). It is also the US term for a lawyer.

Barrister - a type of lawyer, usually instructed by solicitors rather than clients, who specialises in representation in court and drafting legal documents. 

Beneficiary - usually describes a person who is entitled to something under a trust or a will, for example a payment or property. 

Bill of Costs - a document prepared at the end of a case, which sets out in detail the costs which have been incurred.

Boundary - the line between properties which separates the areas of ownership. Boundary disputes arise when the areas of ownership are not clearly defined. 

Break Clause - a clause in a contract which entitles one or both of the parties to end the contract early, under certain circumstances. 

Brief - the instructions given to a Barrister, usually by a Solicitor, to carry out work on their behalf. 

Causation - the link between the act or ommission, and the harm caused. Causation can be used as a defence, as if there is no link, the claim will fail. 

Cease and Desist - the US term for a Letter of Claim (see below). 

Chancery Division - a division of the High Court dealing mainly with claims about property, land, businesses, intellectual property, wills and commercial issues. 

Charge - a legal charge is commonly called a mortgage and refers to a lender's right over land they have loaned money against. 

Chattel - a person's property, other than land.

Chose in Action - the right to bring a claim against someone. 

Claimant - the person or company with a claim against a Defendant. The claimant starts court proceedings and is usually responsible for the trial bundle. 

Common Law - the body law arising from cases which have been decided by judges, rather than arising from statute passed by Parliament. 

Completion - in a Conveyancing transaction, the day the money is transferred from the buyer to the seller of the property, and ownership passes to the buyer.

Contributory Negligence - a defence to a claim for damages for negligence, which alleges that the Claimant is wholly or partially at fault themselves, and contributed to the damage. 

Conveyancing - the procedure for selling and buying property. 

Counsel - a Barrister (see above). 

Counterclaim - the Defendant's claim against a Claimant, which can be dealt with at the same time as the claim. 

County Court - a local court dealing with most types of claim within a geographical area, up to a certain financial limit (which differs for different types of claim). 

Creditor - a person or a company to whom you owe money. 

Damages - money which you are paid in compensation for damages which has been caused to you. 

Debtor - a person or a company which owes money to you. 

Defamation - an untrue statement which has been published about a person or a company, either in writing (Libel) or made orally (Slander).

Defendant - the person against whom a Claimant brings a court claim. 

Dependant - an individual, usually a family member, who depends upon you for your care. 

Disbursement - expenses incurred during a claim by your solicitor on your behalf, such as court fees, expert's fees and Barrister's fees. 

Disclosure - the process by which each of the parties to a claim (the Claimant and Defendant) tell each other what documents they have in their possession which help or harm their case. 

Donor/Donee - a donor is a person who gives something to someone else) the donee/contact. This could be money, property, or a power to do something on behalf of the donor. 

Duty of Care - the obligations owed by one person, usually a professional, to another person. If the duty of care is breached, this can give rise to a claim for Negligence. 

Easement - a right over land which you down not own, such as a right to cross the land to get to your land, or a right to enter the land to be able to maintain your own land. 

Enduring Power of Attorney - a document which grants power to another individual to act on your behalf. They become known as your Attorney (see above). 

Engrossment - the version of a legal document which is in it's final form.

Equity - this means fairness, and is a branch of law which enables courts to make decisions about disputes on the basis of fairness. 

Escrow - usually used in the context of money being held on trust for another party, but can also refer to documents being kept by a third party for security purposes. 

Estate - the whole of a person's possessions at the time of their death, including cash, Chattels and houses or land. 

Exchange - the point at which an agreement to buy property becomes binding. This can happen before or at the same time as Completion. 

Executor - the person named in the will of a deceased person, who's job it is to ensure that the deceased's wishes are carried into effect. 

Ex Gratia - an act which is done as a favour without any requirement for payment. 

Fiduciary Duty - a duty of care of the highest order owed by one party to another. This can be a duty owed by a professional or a trustee and often relates to finances.

Force Majeure - an event which cannot be foreseen, such as a natural disaster, which means that a contract cannot be performed. 

Hearing - when the parties to a dispute appear before a judge. This can be in court, but increasingly hearings are conducted by telephone. 

Hearsay - evidence which is not given directly by a person, but which is passed on via a third party. Generally hearsay evidence will have very little weight attached to it by the court. 

High Court - the court which deals with higher value and more complex claims, and hears appeals from the Employment Tribunal and County Court. 

Intestacy - the situation when someone dies without leaving a will and their Estate has to be distributed according to the intestacy rules. 

Joint Tenant - a way of owning property where each of the joint tenants owns the whole of the property, and their share passes to the other upon their death. 

Jurisdiction - the geographical area over which a court has the ability to hear a claim. Most claims in this country are dealt with within the jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales. 

Lasting Power of Attorney - a legal document which allows another individual (known as your Attorney) to look after your affairs when you can no longer manage them on your own. 

Lawyer - a legal professional who is either a Solicitor or a Barrister.

Letter of Claim - an initial letter sent to a Defendant by a Claimant, setting out the details of the claim they are intending to bring against them.

Libel - an untrue written statement about a person or company which causes harm to their reputation.

Limitation - the date by which court proceedings must be started, if the right to bring a claim is to be preserved. For breach of contract and negligence cases, the time limit is 6 years from the date of the wrongful act. 

Liquidation - when a company does not have enough money to cover it's debts, it will enter liquidation, which is the process by which a company is brought to a close. 

Litigation - the legal process when one party wants to sue another, usually by starting court proceedings. 

Malice - often referred to in the context of defamation claims, malice is a party's intention to do deliberate harm to another party.

Mediation - a confidential and Without Prejudice form of alternative dispute resolution where the parties engage the services of a mediator to assist them in reaching settlement. 

Misrepresentation - in contractual terms, when one party makes unfounded promises to entice the other party to enter into a contract with them. Where misrepresentation exists, the contract can often be brought to an end. 

Mitigation - an aggreived party in most civil claims will have a duty to mitigate their losses, which means they must take steps themselves to ensure that their losses are a little as possible. 

Negligence - negligence occurs when one party owes a duty of care to another, and breaches that duty, leases to losses being incurred by the party to whom the duty is owed. 

Nuisance -  a private nuisance is where one party causes difficulty or annoyance to another party and a public nuisance is where a party causes a difficulty or annoyance to the public at large.

Perjury - being dishonest to the court. The penalties for perjury are severe and can include imprisonment. 

Pleading - the old name for a document submitted to the court, setting out a party's case. Now these documents are called the Statements of Case, most notably the Particulars of Claim and the Defence. 

Power of Attorney - the name often given to a Lasting Power of Attorney (see above). 

Probate - the process by which the Estate of a person who has passed away can be administered and distributed according to the Deceased's wishes, by a person appointed by them to do so. 

Pro Bono - legal advice which is given to a party at no charge, essentially, free legal advice.

Protocol - a set of rules which parties must adhere to prior to starting court proceedings, in the hope that the issues can be narrowed or dealt with. Examples are the Defamation Pre Action Protocol and the Professional Negligence Pre Action Protocol. 

Queen's Bench Division - a branch of the High Court dealing with specialist areas including technology and constuction and admiralty claims. 

Respondent - a party who responds to an appeal in legal proceedings. 

Restrictive Covenant - a restriction in a contract which prevents one of the parties from doing a specific thing for a specific period of time, within a defined geographical area. 

Slander - untrue statements about one party by another, in a verbal or oral form, rather than in writing, which causes financial loss and reputational harm. 

Solicitor - a person who's name is held on the Roll of Solicitors, who is authorised to call themselves a solicitor. 

Statement of Truth - a statement at the end of a document confirming that what the person says in the statement is true. 

Supreme Court - the highest court in England and the final court of appeal from the Court of Appeal and High Court.

Tenant in Common - a way of holding property in shares, which can be sold or gifted separately from the share held by other tenants in common of the same property.

Testator - the name given to the person who makes a will. 

Trust - a legal mechanism where one party is the legal owner of property for the benefit of another person. 

Trustee in Bankruptcy - they step into the shoes of a bankrupt person and deal with their Creditors and other financial issues. 

Vexatious Litigant - a person who makes repeated and unfounded court claims can be placed on the vexatious litigants register, which means they need permission from the court before they can start court proceedings. 

Vicarious Liability - the responsibility of a third party, usually an employer, for the acts of people under their control, usually an employee. 

Wayleave - an agreement which allows one party to enter onto land belonging to someone else to carry out essential work. Often used in the context of electricity pylons or other infrastructure relating to utilities. 

Winding Up - the process of bringing a business to an end and selling off and distributing the business' assets. 

Without Prejudice - a document which is without prejudice cannot be used in evidence before the judge decides who wins and who loses. In practical terms, to have without prejudice status, a document must advance settlement discussions. 

Witness Statement - a legal document setting out what a witness wants to say. It should have a Statement of Truth at the end. 

If you are struggling to understand legal terminology and need assistance with a case, contact us today to see how we can help.