Legal Glossary

LEGAL GLOSSARY

NOTICE: This glossary of legal words and phrases is provided to help you better understand the legal terminology used in the court system. THIS GLOSSARY IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE ADVICE OF AN ATTORNEY.

THE COURT STAFF CANNOT GIVE YOU LEGAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD NEVER RELY ON THESE VERY BASIC DEFINITIONS TO MAKE LEGAL DECISIONS. Please use this glossary to get a general understanding of your legal circumstance and have a better interaction with the court.

  1. TYPES OF LAW AND COURT RULES

Law—The collection of rules and principles that controls how citizens, corporations and other entities, and government units (local, state, and federal) interact with each other for the common good. Law can specify what conduct is subject to punishment (criminal law), and what rules apply when private parties have a dispute (civil law.)

Constitution—The fundamental law of a state or nation. A constitution sets out the basic structure and operation of government, describes what a government can and cannot do, and defines the rights of citizens.

Case law—Rules and principles of law made by judges over several years through written decisions in prior cases. Case law is also sometimes called “precedent.” Lower courts are required to follow precedent set by higher level courts.

Common law—Rules and principles of law created over long periods of time through written decisions of judges. Certain common law principles in Ohio and the United States go back to decisions made centuries ago in England.

Statutory law—Rules and principles of law created by elected representatives through the process of legislation. In Ohio, statutory law is enacted by the General Assembly, and called the Ohio Revised Code or ORC. In the United States, statutory law is enacted by Congress, and called the United States Code, or USC. Common law can be changed by statute.

Ordinance—Rules and principles of law enacted by local elected representatives and effective only in that city or township. Zoning would be an example of a local ordinance.

Court rule—A written legal principle for the procedural operation of a court in the resolution of pending cases. The Supreme Court of Ohio has adopted statewide rules for: Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Juvenile Procedure, Evidence, and Appellate Procedure.

Local rule—A written legal principle adopted by a local court for the procedural operation of that specific local court. Local rules cannot be inconsistent with the statewide rules of procedure.

Law library—An organization for the collection, storage, maintenance, and retrieval of legal reference materials, such as: collected decisions of appellate courts, statutory law in the Ohio Revised Code and United States Code, rules of courts, and research works. Most law libraries now have computer research terminals in addition to printed works.

  1. TYPES OF COURTS

Court—A government body given the legal power to hear and decide cases. A court can be either a trial court or an appellate court.

Jurisdiction—The legal power and authority for a court to hear and decide particular types of cases. A court without jurisdiction cannot make decisions in a case. Jurisdiction can also mean the geographic area in which a court has legal authority to act on cases, such as a city, a county, or a judicial district.

Trial court—A court with legal authority to hear and decide cases, civil and criminal, conduct trials, hearings, and other proceedings, issue rulings, orders, and decisions, and impose criminal penalties where appropriate in a particular geographic area. Trial courts hear witnesses, admit exhibits, and decide both legal and factual issues.

Court of Appeals or Appellate Court—A court above the trial court level which reviews trial court proceedings and decisions for legal errors. Courts of appeal do not conduct trials, hear witnesses’ testimony, or take evidence.

State Court—A court responsible for administering justice by applying state law within one of the United States. Each of the fifty states has their own state court system.

In the Ohio state court system, Common Pleas Court, Municipal, Domestic Relations, Probate and Juvenile courts are trial courts. There are twelve district courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court of Ohio. The Ohio Court of Claims is a specialized trial court for hearing cases against the State of Ohio.

Federal Court—A court established by Congress for administering justice on matters of federal law (patents, trademarks, counterfeiting, federal criminal laws, bankruptcy, constitutional issues, antitrust, civil rights, etc.)  Federal trial courts are the United States District Courts.

Common Pleas Court—The general jurisdiction trial court in Ohio. A common pleas court has legal authority over adult felony criminal cases, bigger civil cases, and all other cases not handled by another, more specialized court. The Common Pleas Court, General Division is the general jurisdiction trial court in Ohio counties.

Municipal Court—A trial court with jurisdiction to handle traffic and misdemeanor cases, and civil cases under $15,000. Small Claims Court is a part of Municipal Court. The local municipal court is the court for these matters in a city or county.

Domestic Relations Court—A state trial court that hears and decides matters relating to marriage, divorce, dissolution, child support, and other family law issues.

Probate Court—A state trial court that hears and decides matters involving estates, wills, guardianships, trusts, and adoptions, and issues marriage licenses.

Juvenile Court—A state trial court that hears and decides matters involving children, such as abuse, neglect, delinquency, and dependency.

Mayor’s Court—A trial court operating within a city for the purposes of handling certain traffic cases, parking violations, and minor criminal matters involving alleged violations of municipal ordinances. Some mayor’s courts where the mayor is not an attorney use magistrates to hear and decide cases.

Supreme Court—The highest level court of appeals in a state or nation that reviews decisions of lower courts for legal error. The highest level court in Ohio is the Supreme Court of Ohio. The highest court in the U.S. is the United States Supreme Court. Supreme courts frequently decide constitutional questions, and create the case law that applies in their areas that lower courts must follow.

  1. WORDS AND PHRASES FOR ALL CASES

Judge—A public official authorized to exercise the power of the court and make all decisions and rulings in all cases. In Ohio, judges are elected and preside over both criminal and civil cases. All judges are attorneys with at least six years of experience.

Magistrate—An attorney appointed by a court to preside over certain trials and hearings, and make some of the decisions and rulings on cases before the court. Magistrates exercise the same judicial authority as judges to make rulings when presiding over cases. Judges retain the legal authority to make final rulings in cases. Both Judges and Magistrates should be addressed as “Your Honor” in trials or hearings.

Clerk of Courts—The elected official in charge of receiving, processing, maintaining, and safely storing the complete record of all documents filed in court cases. There are separate offices for the Clerk of Courts for Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations, Juvenile, and Probate courts. A different Clerk of Courts handles such matters for a local Municipal Court.

Docket—The official record of all documents filed by the parties or generated by the court in a case. The Clerk of Courts creates and keeps the docket for all cases, criminal and civil.

Docket can also mean the daily schedule for court trials and hearings. A case that is set for a hearing or a trial is said to be “on the judge’s docket” for that day.

File—To deliver documents to a court for legal consideration by a judge or magistrate. A document is filed when it is physically delivered to the Clerk of Court in person, by mail, by delivery service, or in certain circumstances by fax. When a document is filed, it is stamped with the date and time of filing, noted on the court’s docket, stored as an electronic image, and placed in the permanent record of the case.

Serve—A copy of a document that is filed with the Clerk of Courts must also be provided to all other parties in the case by the person who files the original papers. A document must be served to be legally considered by a judge or magistrate. Service of a document must be done according to the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure; for instance by mailing it, physically delivering it, or using a delivery service. Service must be made on the attorneys who have appeared in a case on behalf of a party, or if a party is unrepresented, on the party themselves.

Serve also refers to what the Clerk of Courts does with documents to make sure that an individual or entity receives those papers, or gets notice of a court hearing or a court order. The Clerk can serve documents by regular mail, certified mail, through the Sheriff’s office, or by a designated person called a process server.

Moot—A matter or legal question that has already been resolved or has become a point of no further legal consequence because of something that has happened outside of court. Moot should not be confused with “mute”, which means to remain silent.

  1. JURIES

Jury—A group of residents from a local jurisdiction (such as a county) who directly participate in the justice system as neutral fact-finders based on evidence presented in court. The Right to Trial by Jury is recognized by both the United States and Ohio Constitutions.

Jury duty—The legal obligation of citizens to come to a trial court to sit as jurors (either as grand jurors or petit jurors), and decide criminal and civil cases. In some courts, jury duty for trials can last as little as one week, or for the duration of one trial. Grand juries meet for different lengths of time, and may not meet every day.

Grand Jury—A group of citizens empowered by a court to hear preliminary evidence, and decide if a crime has been committed. If the grand jury decides that there is enough evidence to believe that an individual has committed a crime, it issues an indictment.

Petit Jury—The jury in the trial of a case, whether it is criminal or civil. A trial court jury decides, after hearing all the evidence, whether one party owes something to another (a civil case), or whether a person is guilty or not guilty of a crime (a criminal case.)

Foreperson—The member of a jury who acts as the “chair” of the deliberations. The foreman or forewoman does not have any extra authority or voting power, but helps to organize the discussion of the evidence within the jury. The members of a jury generally select that person at the start of their deliberations. A foreperson might have authority to sign certain court documents related to the deliberations and any indictment or verdict.

Verdict—The final decision of a petit jury after hearing all the evidence, legal arguments, and instructions on the law from the judge in a civil or criminal trial. A civil verdict might determine whether one party owes money to another party. A criminal verdict would be either guilty or not guilty as to an alleged crime. A “hung jury” is one that cannot agree on a verdict.

  1. COURT DOCUMENTS

Writ—An order from a court directing someone to do or not do a specific legal action. The best known writ is the writ of habeas corpus, which is a legal challenge to someone being in government custody. The Clerk of Court would issue a writ at a judge’s direction.

Subpoena—An order from a court requiring someone to appear in court at a specific date and time to give testimony, bring documents or other physical things, or both. The Clerk of Courts issues subpoenas for civil and criminal trials and other court hearings. Failing to obey a subpoena can be considered contempt of court and the violator may be punished.

Praecipe—A written request to the Clerk of Court asking that a certain action be taken. A praecipe is usually used for the issuance of a subpoena, issuance of a writ, or an order to sell property at a sheriff’s sale.

Judgment—A final order of a court at the end of a case. In a civil case, a judgment could require that one party pay a sum of money to another party. A judgment can also dismiss a party’s claims if they have not proven their legal right to recover. In a criminal case, a judgment could be that a person is guilty of a crime and receives a criminal sentence.

Certified Judgment—A judgment in another court that is transferred to and officially recognized by a different court. Ohio courts are required to recognize and give full legal authority to other courts’ decisions and judgments. A certified judgment can also come from a state agency, such as the Ohio Department of Taxation.

Certified Judgment can also mean a formal copy of a court judgment that has been stamped with the official seal of the Clerk of Courts. A certified document is given greater authority as genuine and can be trusted as official when used in other situations.

Motion—A formal request to a court by a party in a case asking that the court take a certain action or make a particular decision. Motions can be in writing filed with the Clerk of Courts, or can be made orally during a trial or hearing before the court.

Order—A legal decision by a court directing that a certain action be taken or making a ruling on a particular motion. Court orders must be followed by the parties that are affected by them. Court orders are usually put in writing and made part of the official case file.

Injunction—A specific type of court order requiring one or more parties to do or not do certain things outside of court. Injunctions do not deal with money damages. Disobeying an injunction can be considered contempt of court and the violator may be punished.

Journal—A specific part of the Clerk of Court’s records for the official recording in all cases of final actions of a judge of the court, such as judgments, orders, decisions, and verdicts. Certain actions are not considered legally complete or official until recorded in the journal.

Legal forms—Pre-printed legal documents with blanks to be filled in to create a finished product customized for use in a particular legal situation. Legal forms must be used with care as not every circumstance can be anticipated by the creator of the blank document, especially documents found on the Internet.

Citation—A reference in a document directing a court or an opposing party to a legal point or rule in a specific legal resource. A citation can be to a prior case, a statute, a court rule, or an ordinance. More and more, citations are to online reference sources for case law and statutes.

  1. WORDS AND PHRASES FOR CIVIL CASES

Civil case—A private dispute between two or more persons, corporations, businesses, or government entities. A civil case can be about contracts, personal injuries, mortgage defaults, property, or other matters. Civil cases are intended to resolve a dispute or disagreement, often about money or legal obligations, which does not involve public harm or safety.

Classification form—A document telling the Clerk of Court something about the legal nature of a civil case when it is filed. The form will indicate if it is an injury claim, a protection order case, a business case, etc. This form is required so the Clerk’s Office and eventually the judge can handle it properly. By local rule, a party filing a civil case must fill out a classification form when the complaint is filed. The Clerk’s office has blank classification forms for people filing cases.

Filing fee/Court costs —The money required by law or local rule of court to be paid as a deposit by a party to start a civil case. The filing fee is used to cover the costs and expenses, such as postage and computerized record keeping, for the normal operation of the Clerk of Courts. The money deposited to cover court costs is used throughout the progress of the case, with any surplus not spent refunded to the party who paid the deposit.

Plaintiff—A person, corporation, or other entity that starts a civil court case by filing a complaint, setting out alleged facts and their legal claims for recovery against one or more defendants.

Defendant—A person, corporation, or other entity subject to the legal claims of another (called the plaintiff) in a civil lawsuit.

Complaint—A legal document filed with the Clerk of Courts by a plaintiff to start a civil case. A complaint describes for the Court and the parties named as defendants the factual and legal reasons for the lawsuit and the remedy the plaintiff is seeking from the court. A complaint and any answer or other documents responding to it are collectively called pleadings.

Summons—A legal document issued by the Clerk of Courts informing a defendant that a case has started against them. A summons is served along with a civil complaint naming every party listed as a defendant. An individual receiving a summons and complaint in a civil case must legally respond to the Court within 28 calendar days from the date of service.

Answer—A legal document filed with the Clerk of Courts by a defendant that responds to a complaint and describes the defendant’s stance on the factual and legal allegations in the complaint. An answer must be in writing (instead of a phone call) in order to properly respond to the complaint with a document that can be placed in the court file. Not filing a written answer could lead to a default judgment in favor of a plaintiff (like a forfeit in sports for not showing up for a game.)

Cross-claim/Counterclaim—The addition of a defendant’s legal claims to an existing lawsuit so that everything about a particular event or transaction is efficiently handled in one case. A cross-claim or counterclaim must be in writing and filed with the Clerk of Court, usually along with an answer. A cross-claim asserts legal claims by one defendant against another defendant. A counterclaim asserts legal claims by a defendant back against the original plaintiff.

Summary judgment—A decision of the court based on a motion filed by a party that resolves all or part of a case without a trial. A summary judgment can only be granted when the facts are undisputed and the law is clear.

Petitioner/Petition—A person who starts a civil case by filing a petition with the Clerk of Courts. A petition is used instead of a complaint when a party seeks a writ (such as habeas corpus) or a specific court order (such as a civil protection order.) If someone is seeking a civil protection order (CPO) against someone else, the person filing is the petitioner.

Respondent—A party who opposes a petitioner in court and seeks to prevent the issuance of a writ or court order. If someone is seeking a civil protection order (CPO) against another person, the person filed against is the respondent.

Indigent—Not having enough income or assets to afford an attorney in a court case. In criminal cases only, a person who is indigent has the right to have an attorney appointed by the court to defend them at public expense. There is no right to counsel for an indigent defendant in a civil case.

Pro se (also called self-represented)—Appearing in court to present a case without an attorney. There are risks of making legal mistakes when appearing without an attorney. Pro se parties are required to follow the same rules of procedure and evidence as attorneys. Certain courts such as Small Claims Court (a part of Municipal Court) encourage pro se parties to present their civil cases without an attorney.

Garnishment—A court order directing a party to pay money into court for payment of a debt. Garnishments are issued by the Clerk of Courts. The two most common garnishments for payment of a court judgment are: (1) a wage garnishment ordering an employer to pay a limited percent of an employee’s wages into the Clerk’s office, and (2) a bank garnishment ordering a bank to pay money out of an account.

Replevin—A court order directing the sheriff to seize personal property from a person. A replevin frequently involves a motor vehicle, usually as security during a court case or as payment on a court judgment.

Foreclosure—A particular type of civil case filed to enforce a mortgage holder’s right to recover real estate when a mortgage is unpaid. A foreclosure case, if not settled by agreement between the lender and the property owner, can lead to a court order for the property to be sold at a sheriff’s public auction.

Revivor—A legal process where a court judgment that has become too old to enforce is reactivated and made current. A party who has won a judgment that has gone stale through the passage of time must file a motion with the Court and have a judge approve bringing the judgment back into full legal effect.

Discovery—The process of investigation of the facts in a civil case after filing and before trial. The Rules of Civil Procedure allow all parties to get discovery from other parties in the case. Discovery can include documents and other business records, testimony of witnesses, written questions and answers, examinations and reports by experts, and digital information.

Deposition—The taking of legal testimony from a witness under oath outside of court. The deposition testimony is recorded and may be used in later proceedings or in trial.

  1. RESOLUTION OF CIVIL CASES

Litigation—The process of filing and pursuing a case in court through and including a trial if necessary. Litigation can be relatively short, such as an eviction case, or it can be very lengthy, such as a major contract or personal injury case.

Resolution—The end of litigation by getting a verdict from a jury, a decision from a judge, or an agreement by the parties to finish a case with mutually acceptable terms. Of all the cases filed in the United States, 97% are resolved without a trial.

Negotiation—A discussion process seeking the end of a civil case through mutual agreement. Parties and/or their attorneys can communicate proposals for resolution and engage in back-and-forth discussions until satisfactory terms are reached (often involving an agreed payment), or a decision is made to go to trial.

Mediation—A process where a neutral third party helps the parties resolve their case by serving as a discussion leader or go-between for communications aimed at settlement. A mediator does not make a decision and cannot force the parties to settle their case. A mediator can work for a court or can be hired privately.

Arbitration—A process where the parties to a case submit their dispute for decision to one or more neutrals who are not judges. The parties make presentations of facts and law to the arbitrator(s) under relaxed rules of evidence and procedure. A decision in arbitration, called an award, can be binding on the parties, or can be non-binding.

Settlement Conference—A meeting with a judge or magistrate to discuss settlement of a pending case before trial.

Dismissal without prejudice—Removing a case from the court docket with the legal opportunity to bring the same claims back to court later.

Dismissal with prejudice—Removing a case from the court docket with a legal barrier to ever bringing the same claims back to court later.

Release—A signed contract giving up the legal right to ever pursue the claims described in the release at any time in the future. A release can be given by one party, or can be given by multiple parties to each other (a mutual release.)

  1. WORDS AND PHRASES FOR CRIMINAL CASES

Criminal case—A legal action filed by a unit of government (local, state, or federal) on behalf of the general public in order to protect both individual victims and society as a whole. The object of a criminal case is to determine who has violated the law and hold them accountable, while protecting the rights of those accused and the alleged victims. Criminal law and procedure creates a justice process that is fair and even handed, so that those who are guilty are convicted without violation of their constitutional rights, and those who are innocent are not wrongly convicted.

Felony—The most serious level of crime, punishable by imprisonment for one year or more. Felony cases are tried in the Common Pleas Court.

Misdemeanor—A lower level of crime, below felony, punishable by a fine or a jail term up to one year, or both. Misdemeanor cases are generally tried in the Municipal Court.

Defendant—A person, corporation, or other entity accused of a crime in a criminal case, whether it is a felony or a misdemeanor.

Grand Jury—A group of citizens empowered by a court to hear preliminary evidence, and decide if a crime has been committed. If the grand jury decides that there is enough evidence to believe that an individual has committed a crime, it issues an indictment.

Indictment—A legal document issued by a grand jury charging an individual or individuals with the commission of a crime, usually a felony. An indictment can charge one or more crimes in a single document. Indictments are filed with the Clerk of Courts for the Common Pleas Court after the grand jury hands them down.

Bill of Information—A court document filed by a prosecuting attorney to start a criminal case. A defendant can give up the right to grand jury proceedings and allow a criminal case to start with a bill of information instead of an indictment.

Bind over—A criminal case can start if, after a preliminary hearing in Municipal Court, a judge determines that there is probable cause to believe a person has committed a crime. A criminal case is said to be “bound over” from Municipal Court to Common Pleas Court for further proceedings.

Citation—A traffic ticket or other notice that a lower level offense has been committed, and that the alleged offender must appear in court. Citations are filed with the Clerk of the Municipal Court after they are issued.

Summons—A legal document issued by a clerk of courts informing a defendant that a case has started against them. A summons can be used when a criminal indictment is filed, naming a person as a defendant. A party who fails to appear in court in response to a summons after a criminal indictment faces possible arrest.

Arrest—Taking an individual into government custody, usually for the commission of a crime. Certain constitutional rights are triggered upon arrest.

Warrant (also called a bench warrant or capias)—A court order that police or the sheriff arrest an individual, generally for the commission of a crime or violation of a court order. The Clerk of Courts issues warrants when directed by a court. Some courts use the word “warrant” while other courts might use “capias.”

Arraignment—A first appearance in court for a defendant at the start of a criminal case. At an arraignment, the defendant is informed of the charges against them, advised of their rights, enters a plea to the charge or charges (usually not guilty), has counsel appointed if needed, and has bond set by a judge or magistrate.

Bail—The release of a criminal defendant to be free prior to trial. The court may impose reasonable conditions on the bail, including the requirement for some security to the court that the defendant will appear for trial. Bail can be cash posted with the Clerk of Courts, a bond provided by a bail bond company, a personal promise to appear, or a combination of these protections. Bail may also include conditions such as a stay away order from the alleged victim, or drug testing.

Bond (also called a surety bond)—An obligation of another party to insure that a defendant in a criminal case appears for trial. A bonding company (represented by a bail bondsman) issues a written promise to pay the court a fixed sum of money if the defendant does not appear. A judge or magistrate sets the dollar amount of the promise based on several factors, such as the severity of the alleged crime, prior offenses, prior non-appearances in court, the defendant’s ties to the local community, etc.

Recognizance bond (also called a recog bond, or recog, or “O.R.”)—The personal promise of a criminal defendant to appear in court on a criminal charge. Failure to appear while free on a recognizance bond can result in separate criminal charges against the defendant. O.R. stands for “on recognizance.” A defendant on a recognizance bond might be required to report to the Probation Department at certain intervals.

Indigent—Not having enough income or assets to afford an attorney in a criminal or civil case. In criminal cases only, a person who is indigent has the right to have an attorney appointed by the court to defend them at public expense. A Public Defender can be appointed to represent an indigent defendant in a criminal case.

Pro se (also called self-represented)—Appearing in court to present a case without an attorney. Anyone with a criminal case in Municipal or Common Pleas Courts should consider obtaining the services of an attorney because of the risk of making a legal mistake that will harm their case. Pro se parties are required to follow the same rules of procedure and evidence as attorneys.

  1. WORDS USED BY COURTS OF APPEAL

Appellant—The party affected by a trial court decision who seeks to have a court of appeals or a supreme court review that lower court decision for legal error. An appellant begins an appeal by filing a Notice of Appeal.

Appellee—A party affected by a court decision who opposes the appeal filed by another party.

Affirmed—A decision by an appellate court confirming that the decision of a lower court on one or more legal points is legally proper.

Reversed—A decision by an appellate court finding that the decision of a lower court is not legally proper on one or more legal points and must be changed by the trial court.

Because an appeal may contain more than one question of law, it is possible for an appellate court to affirm certain parts of a lower court decision while in the same opinion reversing other points.

Overruled—A supreme court can change a legal precedent set in earlier case law if it decides that the older case was not correctly decided or that the legal rule in the earlier case needs to be changed.

Modified—A decision by an appellate court finding that the decision of a lower court is not legally proper and is being changed by order of the appellate court.

Remanded—A decision by an appellate court sending a case back to a lower court for further action. A case that is reversed is frequently remanded to a lower court for additional proceedings consistent with the appellate court’s determination of the correct law to be applied.

NOTE: This glossary of legal words and phrases is provided to help you better understand the legal terminology used in court. THIS GLOSSARY IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE ADVICE OF AN ATTORNEY. COURT STAFF CANNOT GIVE YOU LEGAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD NEVER RELY ON THESE VERY BASIC DEFINITIONS TO MAKE LEGAL DECISIONS. Please use this glossary to get a general understanding of your legal circumstance and have a better interaction with court personnel.