By Santo J. Aurelio
Legal words and phrases are important words with which reporters should be familiar. Many of those terms derive from the Latin (L.). This article will provide explanations for some of the more common legal terms that reporters frequently encounter.
defendant one against whom an action is brought; one who defends an action; a respondent; an accused
mens rea (L.) criminal intent
ex post facto (L.) after the fact
chattels goods; personal property; nonrealty
proximate cause the direct cause
uttering passing (offering) a forged instrument (as, a check)
ordinance local law (e.g., city/town law)
agent one authorized to act for someone else (as, employee, servant)
libel defamation conveyed by sight (as, photo, TV, book)
slander defamation conveyed by the spoken word
res ipsa loquitur (L.) the thing speaks for itself
dictum (pl. dicta) (L.) nonessential statement in a judicial decision
subpoena duces tecum (L.) a writ ordering one to produce in court certain items
habeas corpus (L., you have the body) a writ issued to bring someone before a judge
personal property nonreal estate; goods; chattels
power of attorney an instrument (paper) by which a person (the principal) confers authority on another (the agent) to act for that person
respondeat superior (L.) the principle that masters (employers) are responsible for the torts (wrongs) of their servants (employees)
plaintiff one who brings an action or sues or complains
venue place; locale (as, location of a court)
complainant one who makes a complaint
ex parte (L.) one side only
lien a right; a claim
encumbrance a claim; a liability; a lien
nonsuit a judgment against the plaintiff for failure to prove his or her case or for failure to appear at time of trial
mortgagee the party lending the money (usu. a bank)
mortgagor the party borrowing the money (usu. a homeowner)
mortgage (dead pledge); a conditional conveyance of realty designed to be security for the payment of money and which "dies" upon full payment; a debt; a pledge
laches unreasonable delay in pursuing a legal remedy
counterclaim defendant’s claim against the plaintiff
interrogatories written questions to be answered by the opposing side, before trial
intestate without a will (e.g., She died intestate)
circumstantial evidence indirect, noneyewitness evidence (as, fingerprints, serology, DNA, etc.)
in loco parentis (L.) in the place of a parent
nolle prosequi (L., unwilling to pursue) an entry on the record denoting that the plaintiff or prosecution will proceed no further on part or all of the case
estate anything that a person owns, whether real or personal property
durance vile imprisonment
duress pressure; threat of injury or imprisonment
easement a right; a right of way; a privilege. E.g., He had the right (or right of way) to travel over his neighbor’s land.
garnish (to warn) to take wages or attach property to satisfy a creditor
eleemosynary charitable (as, The Salvation Army is an eleemosynary organization)
in flagrante delicto (L., while the crime is blazing) redhanded; in the very act of doing something
consortium legal right of one to the company, affection, and service of another (as, husband and wife, mother and son, etc.); a group (as, of companies)
raison d’etre (French, reason of state) reason for existence; justification
pro se (L.) for oneself; in one’s own behalf (as, The defendant appeared pro se)
quid pro quo (L., this for that, something for something) something received or given for something else. E.g., Our quid pro quo was as follows: I would do him that favor if he would reciprocate later.
res judicata – (L.) a matter that is adjudged. It is conclusive until or unless the judgment is reversed.
scienter (L.) knowingly; knowledge (often guilty knowledge or knowledge of a crime)
sic (L., thus) so; in such manner; intentionally so written. Written or spoken after a word or words to indicate that it is intended exactly as written or spoken. E.g., She said, “I don’t know nothing” (sic).
antenuptial (L.) made or done before a marriage. E.g. They signed an antenuptial agreement two days before they married.
subpoena (L., under penalty) an order for one to appear at a certain time and place; a writ ordering the same
stipulation an agreement between the parties to a case or between counsel
derogate to lessen; to impair; to take away from. E.g., The amendment to the law derogated from its effectiveness.
variance a disagreement; a discrepancy; in zoning, permission to do something contrary to the zoning bylaws. E.g., She wanted a variance to build a swimming pool on a small lot.
exculpatory tending to clear from guilt (as, The defendant needed exculpatory evidence to establish his innocence.)
Legal Terminology Test
The following sentences will test your knowledge of the legal terms that have been expounded. Decide whether the sentence is true or false, and then answer “True” or “False” next to the question.
1. Interrogatories are written questions.
2. Intestate is another spelling of “interstate,” and it means between states.
3. Circumstantial evidence should be accorded the same legal weight as direct evidence.
4. “In loco parentis” always means in the place of a parent.
5. “Nolle prosequi” means that the Government will not pursue the prosecution.
6. “Uttering” means passing (offering) a forged instrument.
7. “Ordinance” and “ordnance” mean the same thing: a local law.
8. An agent is one authorized to act for another.
9. Libel and slander both involve defamation, the former by sight.
10. “Res ipsa loquitur” means while the suit is pending.
11. A quid pro quo only occurs when somebody offers money for something (e.g., a bribe).
12. “Res judicata” means that the case or issue has already been decided or adjudicated.
13. “Scienter” means knowledge.
14. “Sic” literally means the place of the seal.
15. An antenuptial contract has no binding force unless a judge participates by signing that contract.
16. “Respondeat superior” means that superiors have to respond for the
wrongs of his/her agents or servants.
17. Generally, plaintiffs sue and defendants defend.
18. A change of venue refers to a defendant changing his plea from not
guilty to guilty.
19. In law, a complainant is a chronic malcontent.
20. Ex parte hearings are never attended by all parties to the action.
21. A synonym for “lien” is encumbrance.
22. Nonsuits terminate civil cases.
23. Mortgagees are usually homeowners.
24. The defense of laches means delay.
25. A counterclaim is the defendant’s claim against the plaintiff.
26. A defendant is one for whom an action is brought.
27. “Mens rea” is Latin for present at the scene of the crime.
28. “Ex post facto” means before the fact.
29. “Chattels” is French for right of way.
30. “Proximate cause” means the direct cause.
31. A good working definition of “estate” is ownership interests in real or personal property.
32. Durance vile is any substance, especially fluid, that is vile or bad to the taste.
33. Duress can be a threat or coercion.
34. An easement is a right of way.
35. If one owes money to a creditor, his/her wages could be garnished.
36. An eleemosynary corporation is one created for profit.
37. “In flagrante delicto” means the flagrant dereliction of duty.
38. Consortium is one’s legal right to the service of another person (e.g., father and daughter).
39. Raison d’etre is the legal principle allowing defendants to sue plaintiffs, but only in very special cases.
40. When a party to a suit represents himself or herself, that party is said to be appearing pro se.
41. “Subpoena” literally means under penalty. Specifically, it means one should come to court.
42. A stipulation is a statement made ex parte and agreed to by the judge.
43. “Derogate” means to delegate a fair amount of responsibility to each attorney in a law firm.
44. A variance means a few things, one of which is an exception to the zoning bylaws.
45. Exculpatory evidence generally tends to help defendants.
46. “Dictum” means the parties must abide by the dictates of the judge.
47. “Subpoena duces tecum” orders one to bring certain items to court.
48. “Habeas corpus” is a writ issued to bring someone before a judge.
49. Personal property cannot include real estate.
50. One can give another the power of attorney by a written instrument.