British Courtroom Terms Explained

Rather than be continually confused by courtroom terms every time you watch a BBC drama, read our article explaining all about the language of the English courtroom.

Barristers

Barristers represent clients in the higher courts. In legal dramas, criminal barristers feature heavily where they are advocating dramatically in The Crown Court. They will have a wig on their head and be wearing a black gown. Some famous barristers include Amal Clooney and Tony Blair.

Queen’s Counsel/Silk

When a barrister gets to a significant number of years of experience (around ten years) then they can apply for silk. They can use the honorific “QC” after their name and can wear a silk gown. Junior barristers wear wool gowns to distinguish them from their senior colleagues.

Chambers

Many barristers operate from “Chambers”. These are buildings containing offices for a group of barristers. Barristers are usually self-employed and so being part of a Chambers allows them to share office costs and staff as a way of saving money. The barristers’ clerk runs the administrative side of Chambers and makes sure that they abide by the “cab-rank rule” where the barrister is obligated to take the job they are offered as long as they have the capability to do it.

Ex parte

You can’t have legal English without a Latin term or two. Ex parte translates as by or for one party so in court proceedings, one party will not need to be at the court. You’ll commonly find these in parental disputes where the custody of children is in question.

Held

We use this verb to talk about the court’s decision in a case or on a particular point. If you look at court reports, the text will usually say “the court held” or “the judge held” followed by the decision of the court. For example: “The court held that the defendant was not guilty.”

In camera

Another Latin term which literally translates as “in chambers” and means that a court hearing should be held in private. Journalists and members of the public are not allowed to attend the hearing for reasons of national security or, say, to protect trade secrets of a company.

Without Prejudice

If a lawyer sends a letter to another lawyer with “WIthout Prejudice” marked at the top it indicates that the lawyer is negotiating and nothing in the letter should be construed as a concession. Those letters cannot be used as evidence in later court proceedings unless agreed by both parties.

McKenzie Friend

Abraham Lincoln said that a “man who represents himself has a fool for a client” but sometimes because of cost or practicality, you might not want a lawyer. It can get lonely defending yourself, so you can call on a McKenzie Friend. A McKenzie Friend does not have to be a lawyer (or your friend) and their job is to sit next to you in court and deal with the paperwork or offer advice to the litigant in person. This idea derives from the 1970 case of McKenzie v McKenzie.

My Lord/My Lady

As a lawyer, you’ll have to remember a long list of terms of how to address judges. If you are addressing a High Court judge, a Court of Appeal judge or a justice of the Supreme Court then it’s “M’Lord” for a gentleman and “M’lady” for a woman.

Contempt of Court

If somebody tries to interfere with the course of justice by trying to influence it, the judge can find them in contempt of court. This may include shouting during a court hearing, filming a court hearing on your phone or harassing witnesses or defendants.

Conclusion

Whether you are a native speaker or not, legalese and courtroom jargon can be confusing. Learn the vocabulary, watch TV shows such as Silk and Defending the Guilty. It’s also worth attending court hearings when you can and, of course, taking some lessons with Legal English UK.

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