Understanding Legal Terms

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Adjudication - Final finding on a case. Giving a judgment or decree, also the name of the judgment given.

Adversary System - The trial system in the United States and some other countries where each of the opposing (adversary) parties have a full opportunity to give or establish its opposing ideas before the court.

Affirm - When a higher court declares that a lower court's action was correct.

Allegation - The accusation, assertion, declaration or statement of a party to an action, made in a pleading, setting out what he expects to prove.

Appeal - To take a case to a higher court for review.

Appearance - The formal proceedings where a defendant submits himself to the jurisdiction of the court - comes to court.

Appellate Court - A court that hears appeals and reviews lower court decisions. Generally, only matters in the lower court transcript and the court files are considered.

Arraignment - In criminal practice, to bring the prisoner to Court in person to answer a charge. (Where the person "pleads" either guilty or not guilty. Typically, defendants plead not guilty at arraignment. They may always change that plea.)

At Issue - Parties to a suit are at issue when they reach a point in the documents where the parties disagree. Basically, facts are alleged to exist by one side and are denied by the other.

Attorney of Record - Attorney whose name appears in the permanent records or files of a case and who represents one side or another.

Bail - Cash or other security placed on deposit with the Court to obtain the release of an arrested or imprisoned person and to guarantee his reappearance before the Court on a specific day. The vast majority of defendants are entitled to have bail set. If they are unable to post the bail/bond then they remain incarcerated until trial. A very few crimes, such as capital murder and tampering with a witnesses, permit the court to deny bail all together.

Bail Bond - A financial obligation signed by the accused, and those who serve as sureties on his behalf, to guarantee his future appearance in court.

Bench Trial - A trial where a judge decides the case - not a jury.

Brief - A written or printed document prepared by lawyers and filed with the court. Usually sets forth both facts and law in support of the particular side of a case.

Burden of Proof - In the law of evidence, the necessity or duty of proving a fact or facts in dispute.

Cause - A suit, litigation or action - civil or criminal. A case filed in court.

Change of Venue - The removal of a case begun in one county or district, to another for trial.

Circumstantial Evidence - All evidence of indirect nature. The decision process by which a court or jury may reason from circumstances known, or proved, that establish by inference the principal fact.

Civil Case - A case between two parties to remedy a private wrong.

Clerk - One who keeps the records of all proceedings, exhibits and administers the oath to jurors and witnesses. Official custodian of the court's records.

Complaint - The beginning document in a case. The first pleading on the part of the complainant, or plaintiff, in a civil action. The first document outlining charges filed by a prosecutor in a criminal case.

Conviction - Being found guilty or pleading guilty to a crime.

Corroborating Evidence - Additional evidence that strengthens or confirms evidence already given.

Cross Examination - The questioning of a witness in a trial, or in the taking of a deposition, by the party on the other side of the case.

Defendant - In a civil case, the party denying or defending itself against charges brought by a plaintiff. In a criminal case, the person charged with an offense.

Deliberation - Thinking about an act before doing it for any amount of time, no matter how brief the time span.

Deposition - The testimony of a witness, not taken in open court, in pursuance of authority given by statute or rule of Court to take testimony elsewhere. Testimony is under oath.

Direct Examination - The first set of questions asked of a witness by the party who called them to court.

Discovery - A proceeding where one side of an action may be informed as to facts known by other parties or witnesses. Includes the exchange of reports, documents, etc.

Exhibit - A paper, document or other article produced and exhibited to a court during a trial or hearing.

Expert Evidence - Testimony given in relation to some specific, technical or professional matter by experts, i.e., persons qualified to speak as authorities because of their special training, skills or familiarity with the subject. Only on matters where experts are necessary.

Felony - An offense punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year and/or a fine over $2500.

Fraud - An intentional perversion of truth; deceitful practice of device resorted to with intent to deprive another of some property or other right, or in some manner to do him injury.

Grand Jury - An independent jury who reviews complaints and accusations in criminal cases filed by prosecutors to see if there is probable cause or reason to believe a crime was committed by the particular person charged and whether a jury trial should occur. They hear evidence. In cases where they believe a trial is warranted they file indictments. In cases, where they believe a trial is not warranted and there is not probable cause they file a no true bill and the case ends prior to trial.

Hearsay - Evidence not proceeding from the personal knowledge of the witness.

Impeachment of Witness - Calling the credibility of a witness into question. Impeachment of witnesses is accomplished through the testimony of other witnesses or evidence of prior bad conduct or criminal convictions of the person on the stand.

Inadmissible - Those items or matters, under the established rules of evidence, cannot be admitted or received in court.

Indictment - An accusation in writing found and presented by a grand jury, accusing the person of some act, which by law, is a crime.

Information - An accusation of criminal offense(s), similar to an indictment, but that is presented to the prosecutor by law enforcement. If probable cause to charge the crime is determined to exist, the charge is then presented to a judge for further review as well as determination of bail.

Instruction - Directions and definitions given by the judge to the jury concerning the law of the case.

Irrelevant - Evidence not relating or applicable to the matter in issue.

Jurisdiction - The power of the Court to hear a case in question. Jurisdiction exists when the proper parties are present in a part of the State where the event occurred and when the point to be decided is within the issues authorized statute or Constitution to be handled by the particular court.

Jury - A certain number of persons selected according to law, and sworn to consider matters of fact and decide the truth based on the evidence in front of them.

Jury Trial - A trial where a group of citizens hears the evidence presented and gives its verdict.

Manslaughter/Reckless Homicide - In the State of Illinois, a person who unintentionally kills an individual without lawful justification commits involuntary manslaughter if his acts whether lawful or unlawful which cause the death are such as are likely to cause death or great bodily harm to some individual, and he performs them recklessly, except in cases in which the cause of the death consists of the driving of a motor vehicle or operating a snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, or watercraft, in which case the person commits reckless homicide. A person commits reckless homicide if he or she unintentionally kills an individual while driving a vehicle and using an incline in a roadway, such as a railroad crossing, bridge approach, or hill, to cause the vehicle to become airborne.

Misdemeanor - Offense less than a felony; generally those punishable by fine or imprisonment for a term of one year or less.

Mistrial - An incomplete, erroneous or invalid trial. A trial that ends before a decision is reached.

Mitigating Circumstance - Items that do not constitute a justification or excuse for an offense, but that may be considered as reducing the degree of moral culpability.

Murder - In the State of Illinois, a person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits First degree murder if, in performing the acts which cause the death: 
(1) he either intends to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual or another, or knows that such acts will cause death to that individual or another; or 
(2) he knows that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual or another. A person commits the offense of Second degree murder when he or she commits the offense of first degree murder and the following mitigating factors are present: 
(1) at the time of the killing he or she is acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by the individual killed or another whom the offender endeavors to kill, but he or she negligently or accidentally causes the death of the individual killed; or 
(2) at the time of the killing he or she believes the circumstances to be such that, if they existed, would justify or exonerate the killing, but his or her belief is unreasonable.

Objection - The act of taking exception to some statement or procedure in trial. Used to call the Court's attention to improper evidence or procedure.

Panel - A list of jurors to serve in a particular court or for the trial of a particular action. Often denotes either the whole body of persons summoned as prospective jurors for a particular term of court or those selected to hear the case.

Parole - The conditional release from prison of a convict before the end of his sentence. If he observes the conditions, the parolee need not serve the remainder of his sentence.

Parties - The persons who are actively participating the legal proceeding.

Petit Jury - The ordinary jury of twelve persons for the trial of a civil or criminal case. Called "petit" to distinguish it from the grand jury.

Preliminary Hearing - Synonymous with "preliminary examination"; the hearing given a person charged with a crime by a judge to determine whether he should be held for trial. The judge reviews the evidence presented by the State to see if there is sufficient evidence (probable cause) to make the person to go to trial on the matter. A preliminary hearing is open to the public unless the defendant requests that it be closed. The accused person must be present at this.

Probable Cause - Reasonable belief that the matter is true. More likely than not that the person is responsible for the crime.

Probation - A sentence where the person is supervised by a probation officer for a set time instead of going to prison.

Prosecutor - A public officer whose duty is the prosecution of criminal proceedings on behalf of the people. The representative of the public in the pursuit of justice.

Public Defender - Lawyers employed by the state to represent defendants accused of crimes that cannot afford to hire their own lawyer.

Reasonable Doubt - An accused person is entitled to acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, guilt has not been proven beyond a "reasonable doubt." A reasonable doubt is one that is based on reason and common sense. Beyond a reasonable doubt means one is firmly convinced of the charge - it does NOT mean all or every possible doubt.

Rebuttal - The introduction of answering evidence; proof by one party disputing evidence provided by the other side; also, the stage of a trial when such evidence is introduced.

Redirect Examination - Follows cross-examination and is exercised by the party who first examined the witness.

Remand - To send back. In the event of a decision being remanded, it is sent back by a higher court to the court from which it came for added action.

Rest - A party is said to "rest" or "rest his case" when he has presented all the evidence he intends to offer.

Restitution - The restoring of goods or money to the victim of a crime by the offender.

Search and Seizure, Unreasonable - In general, an unlawful search of one's premises or of his person; a search which is unreasonably oppressive in its invasion of privacy. Evidence from an unreasonable search or seizure is not permitted in court.

Search Warrant - A written order from a justice or magistrate permitting an officer to search a specific place for a specific object, issued upon a showing of probable cause.

Self-Defense - The protection of one's person or property against some injury attempted by another. The law of "self-defense" justifies an act done in the reasonable belief of immediate danger. When acting in justifiable self-defense, a person may not be punished criminally nor held responsible for civil damages. Deadly self-defense is only lawful when in response to IMMEDIATE death or serious physical injury.

State's Attorney - Same as prosecutor.

State's Evidence - Testimony given by an accomplice or participant in a crime tending to convict others.

Statute - The written law decided by the legislative branch of government.

Subpoena - A process to cause a witness to appear and give testimony before a court or magistrate.

Summons - A notification to the named person that an action has been commenced against him in court and that he is required to appear, on the day named, and answer the complaint in such action.

Testimony - Evidence given by a witness, under oath; as distinguished from evidence derived from writings and other sources.

Transcript - The official record of proceedings in a trial or hearing.

Venue - The particular county, city or geographical area in where a court with jurisdiction may hear and determine a case. Typically where the action occurred.

Verdict - In practice, the formal decision or finding made by a jury, reported to the Court and accepted by it.

Voir Dire - The process of questioning prospective jurors to determine who is eligible to serve as jurors on an individual case. French for "to speak the truth." Also, the phrase denotes the preliminary examination which the Court may make of one presented as a witness or juror, as to his qualifications.

Waive - To give up right or claim voluntarily.

Warrant of Arrest - A writ by a magistrate, justice or other competent authority, to a sheriff or other officer, requiring him to arrest a person therein named and bring him before the magistrate of Court to answer to a specified charge.

Witness - One who testifies to what he has seen, heard, or otherwise observed.

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