Legal Dictionary

Free Legal Glossary

We have compiled this online legal dictionary of important terms together with detailed definitions to help you understand how to use them in your written and spoken English. This is a live project organised by our tutors and students so if you feel that there are any important legal words missing, please contact us.

A

Actus Reus  a Latin phrase translated as the “guilty act”, i.e. the action or conduct of an individual which is an essential element of a crime.

Advocate – a lawyer who speaks in court on behalf of their client. It is more commonly used in Scotland.

Affidavit  a sworn statement of truth used in legal proceedings.

Agreement – this occurs where two parties reach consensus on a set of facts or on taking a particular course of action. For example, when a negotiation finally reaches an agreement.

Allegation (n)/Allege (v) – a claim which has been made against an individual, often without proof or a claim that someone has done something illegally.

Alternative business structures (ABS) – a firm that is managed, owned or controlled by a mix of lawyers and non-lawyers offering legal services. A non-lawyer is a person who is not authorised to carry out reserved legal activities.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) – arbitration and mediation are alternative ways in which a dispute can be resolved, without going to court.

Ancillary relief – an application for financial support, following the presentation of a petition for divorce, nullity or judicial separation. The term arises because the financial application is ‘ancillary’ to the divorce petition.

Arbitration – attempting to resolve a dispute without attending court: a third party (the arbitrator) looks at both sides of the dispute and makes a decision as to how it should be resolved. Those involved may agree to be bound by the decision of the arbitrator.

Assets – things owned by a person or organisation which usually have some value.

Associate – a person, usually employed by a law firm, who may be in charge of handling your case: often a lawyer, they are considered by the firm employing them to be a ‘senior assistant’.

Asylum – protection and immunity from extradition granted by a government to a political refugee from another country.

Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST) – an AST allows a tenant to live in rented accommodation (normally for six months). You have no right to stay at the end of the tenancy period agreed if your landlord has given you valid notice to leave.

Assured tenancy – often used by public-sector landlords, assured tenancy gives you far greater rights to stay at the end of the tenancy period agreed.

B

Bankrupt – the legal status of a person or organisation that is unable to repay debts owned to its creditors.

Barrister – a lawyer regulated by the Bar Standards Board who specialises in courtroom advocacy, drafting pleadings and offering expert legal opinions.

Beneficiary – someone who is entitled to a benefit (e.g. under a will or trust).

Bequest – a gift of money or personal property made in someone’s will.

C

Chambers – a building containing a group of independent, self-employed barristers who share employed clerks to administer work and who share the expense of clerks, administrative costs, rent and brand name.

Chattels – archaic word occasionally still used in legal English for personal belongings that can be moved from one place to another.

Civil law – the area of law covering disputes you may have with a person or an organisation.

Claimant – a person making a claim.

Client – someone who uses services provided by a lawyer or another legal professional.

Cohabitation contracts – these set out, in advance, what each member of the relationship expects of the other, both during the relationship and if they separate or one of them dies. They are ‘honourable agreements’, which means that not all clauses may be enforced by the courts, but they do limit disagreements and certainly provide some peace of mind.

Common law – A part of law that derives from custom and case law rather than statutes.

Compensation – recompense for loss, injury, or suffering.

Compromise agreements – in a workplace dispute, if you can reach an agreement with your employer without going to a tribunal, this can be recorded in a ‘compromise agreement’. This is a legal document which confirms the terms of the settlement you have agreed, in exchange for which you give up your legal claim against your employer. You may be able to get your employer to make a contribution to your legal costs as part of the agreement.

Conciliation – an alternative to alternative dispute resolution where the parties to a dispute use a conciliator, who meets with the parties both separately and together in an attempt to resolve their differences.

Conditional fee agreement (CFA) – if a claim on a CFA is unsuccessful the solicitor typically receives no payment for their work (No Win No Fee). If the claim is successful the solicitor claims a higher than normal fee to reflect their risk in taking the case on.

Conditions – requirements, restriction or permission added onto a document.

Contract – an agreement signed by two or more parties setting out the terms of an arrangement – for example, between a buyer and a seller in a property transaction.

Continuing professional development (CPD) – the training that lawyers (and other professionals) are required to complete every year by the organisation regulating them.

Conveyancing – the processes involved in buying, selling or remortgaging a property to transfer its legal title from one person to another.

Costs lawyers – a lawyer who settles the legal costs of court cases, and who is regulated by the Association of Costs Lawyers.

Counsel – another term used to describe a barrister.

County Court – County courts deal with civil matters.

Creditor – a person or organisation to whom money is owed.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – the CPS is the organisation that prosecutes criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales.

Crown prosecutor – a lawyer (generally a solicitor or a barrister) working for the Crown Prosecution Service.

Crown courts – Crown courts deal with more serious cases. If you plead not guilty, your case will be heard in front of a judge and jury of 12 people, who will decide whether you are guilty or innocent, after they have heard all the evidence.

Court of protection – when a person is felt to be mentally incapable of making a particular decision at a particular time, and they haven’t made a lasting power of attorney, and the decision isn’t one that can be made on an informal basis, the matter can be referred to the Court of Protection. The court may either choose to make the decision itself on the person’s behalf, or choose a separate party to make the decision on their behalf.

Culpable – to be at fault or guilty of something.

D

Damages – a financial award paid to a person or organisation for loss or injury in a civil case.

Discrimination – being treated unfairly or differently because of factors, such as disability, race, religion or belief, sex or sexuality.

Disbursements – fees that are paid to organisations as required as part of legal services. For example, this could be a payment made by your lawyer to a local authority for property information when buying a house.

Domicile – the place where a person has their permanent principal home to which they return or intend to return.

E

Estate – a person’s property, entitlements or obligations.

Evidence – that which tends to prove or disprove something.

Executor – someone named in a will who will carry out the directions of the will.

Exempt European lawyer (EEL) – a lawyer described by a European directive.

F

Face amount – the original amount due prior to adding the calculation of interest. 

Fair market value – the value at which a property would sell at if it were put on the open market, real estate appraisers will use.

Fair trade laws – laws which permit manufacturers to set a minimum price at which their product is sold for. 

False imprisonment – where a person is restrained by another person who does not have the legal right to. False imprisonment may become a kidnapping if the victim is restrained for a significant amount of time.  

False pretences – the crime of knowingly making untrue statements for the purpose of obtaining money or property fraudulently. 

Family Division – sector of the high court that specifically deals with family law matters such as marriage, divorce and probate. 

Felony – old term used used to describe serious crimes i.e. rape or murder. This term is still used in the U.S.

Fixed Charge – A charge held over specific assets. The debtor cannot sell the assets without the consent of the secured creditor or repaying the amount secured by the charge.

Fixed asset – assets that are purchased for long term use and not likely to be converted into cash quickly. Examples of these assets could include land or buildings.

Floating Charge – A charge held over general assets of a company. The assets may change (such as stock) and the company can use the assets without the consent of the secured creditor until the charge “crystallises” (becomes fixed). Crystallisation occurs on the appointment of an administrative receiver, on the presentation of a winding-up petition or as otherwise provided for in the document creating the charge.

Force majeure – an event that cannot be controlled and will stop duties under an agreement from being carried out.

Foreclosure – the repossessing of a property when the mortgagor has failed to keep up with mortgage repayments. If the debt is not repaid then the property may be repossessed.

Forfeiture – when the tenant has not met the conditions of tenancy agreement therefore losing the possession of the property. 

Forward Contract – an agreement between two parties to buy or sell an asset as a specific price on a predefined expiry date. The contract can vary between different trades making it a non-standard entity. Forward contracts are most commonly used for trading commodity markets. 

Franchise – a licensing contract that allows a business to give the right to a third party to operate using their trade-name. This may be through manufacturing, distribution or sales. 

Fraud – lying or deceiving to either make a profit or gain an advantage, or cause someone else to suffer a disadvantage. 

Fraudulent conveyance – the transfer of land ownership with the intention of defrauding someone

Fraudulent Trading – Where a company has carried on business with intent to defraud creditors, or for any fraudulent purpose. It is a criminal offence and those involved can be made personally liable for the company’s liabilities.

Free of encumbrances – no one else having any rights over something. If one person owns a property and no other person has any rights over it then it is owned free of encumbrances. 

Freehold – the description of an areas of land that only the owner has any legal rights over. 

Frustration – the stopping of a contract. A contract may not be carried out because something make’s the contract impossible this is called the frustration of a contract.

Funded debt – this may also be known as a long-term debt. This is a debt in the form of securities, such as loans or bonds, with long-term or indefinite redemption. 

Futures contact – binding contract to buy or sell something in the future at a fixed price.

G

General damages – these are dames that a court will give compensation for without the need for specific proof that that damage was done to the claimant. 

Going concern – Basis on which insolvency practitioners prefer to sell a business. Effectively it means the business continues, jobs are saved, and a higher price is obtained.

Grant – proof that you are entitled to deal with a person’s estate who has dies. The grant is used by the probate registry. 

Grant of probate – a certificate that proves the executors of the will are entitled to deal with the estate. Forms as well as the death certificate and will, will be sent to the Probate Registry which will then in turn be examined by the registrar and once satisfied a grant of probate will be issued. 

Grievous bodily harm – an area of criminal law meaning to intentionally cause serious physical harm to another person.

Guarantee – An agreement to pay a debt owed by a third party. It must be evidenced in writing for it to be enforceable.

Guarantee company – a company whose members only have to pay the amount they have agreed to contribute of the company is wound up and do not have to pay any extra money if they do not have sufficient funds to pay the company’s debt 

Guarantor – a person or organisation that promises to pay a debt that is owed by the second person if the second person fails to repay it

Guardian – someone who is appointed to a child or someone incapable formally to look after their interests.

Guilty – a courts verdict that someone is to be charged with the crime they committed. 

H

Habeas corpus – a writ which can be applied for to order a person’s release if they have been imprisoned unlawfully.

Hearsay evidence – evidence given in court of something said to the witness by another person. In British law, it is not usually admissible unless permitted by statute.

Hereditament – any property which is capable of being inherited.

High Court (of Justice) – part of the Supreme Court. It is split into three divisions:
• Queen’s Bench Division;
• Chancery Division; and
• Family Division.

HM Land Registry – a registry with offices in towns and cities throughout England and Wales which keep records of registered land.

Holding company – a company which controls another company, usually by owning more than half of its shares.

Hostile witness – a witness who:
• refuses to testify in support of the people who
called them; or
• testifies in a way which differs from their
previous statement.

I

Indictable offence – a serious offence which can be tried by jury in the Crown Court.

Indictment – a document setting out the details of the offence a defendant is accused of.

Injunction – an injunction is an order by a court requiring:
• someone to do something; or
• not to do something.

Inns of Court – The four Inns of Court are professional associations for barristers which can be found in central London. A barrister must belong to one of the Inns.

Intangible property – property which does not physically exist, such as a right or a patent.

Interest – a legal right to use property.

Interlocutory Proceedings – the first things to be done before a civil case comes
to trial. They include pleading (preparing the formal written statement) and discovery (stating the documents, under one party’s control, which are
relevant to the case and making them available to the other party) so that there are no surprises when the trial starts.

Intestacy/intestate – when someone dies without leaving a will. Their
estate is divided up between their relatives following the rules set by law.

Intimidation – threatening or frightening someone into doing
something.

Issue – the legal word for:
• children; or
• the matter to be decided by a court action.
Issued share capital share capital which has been allocated to
shareholders who have subscribed for (asked for)
shares.

J

Judge – a judge presides over court proceedings and hears all witnesses and evidence presented by the parties of the case, assesses the credibility and arguments of the parties, and then issues a ruling on the matter at hand, based on his or her interpretation of the law and his or her own personal judgment.

Jury – a sworn body of people in court who listen to the evidence in a trial in order to make an impartial decision (verdict). They tend to be found in criminal courts

K

Kerb crawling – the offence committed in a street or public place by a
man in a motor vehicle (or near a vehicle he has just got out of) who approaches a woman for sexual services in return for money.

Kidnap – to take someone away by force against their will.

Know-how – the expertise and technical information in an organisation which is often protected by a patent.

L

Land Registry – a statutory body whose role is to maintain registers of certain legal estates in land and was established under the Land Registration Act 1925.

Law of Property Act 1925 (LPA 1925) – Governs transactions in law and property. Contains statutory powers of receivers appointed under a fixed charge.

Law Society – the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales.

Lawyer – a professional who is authorised to carry on legal activities by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Leasehold – property which is held exclusively by a tenant for a given period of time in return for rent.

Legacy – gift left to an individual via a will. Land cannot be a legacy.

Liable – where an individual is legally responsible for something.

Libel – a defamatory statement made in a permanent written form such as a newspaper article or on social media.

Licence – authority given which allows the holder to do something which would otherwise be unlawful.

Lien – Right to retain possession of assets or documents until settlement of a debt.

Limitation Period  – as dictated by the Limitation Act 1980 these are the statutory rules which limit the period in which a civil claim may be commenced.

Limited Liability Partnership – this is a partnership where all or some of the partners have limited liability.  

Liquidation – Applies to companies or partnerships. It involves the realisation and distribution of the assets and usually the closing down of the business. There are three types of liquidation – compulsory, creditors’ voluntary and members’ voluntary.

Liquidation Committee – Committee of creditors who receive information from the liquidator and sanction some of his actions.

Liquidator – The Official Receiver or an insolvency practitioner appointed to administer the liquidation of a company or partnership.

Litigant – the individual who is party to a court action.

Litigant in person – an individual who represents themselves during the course of court proceedings.

Litigation – the commencement of legal action through the courts.

Loan capital – money raised by an organisation.

M

Magistrate – a justice of the peace who sits in the magistrates’ court who usually is a non-legal volunteer. They preside over minor cases.

Magistrates Court – the lowest court in England and Wales which generally deals with minor criminal cases.

Malfeasance – an unlawful act.

Mediation – a form of alternative dispute resolution in which an independent third party assists the parties to resolve their dispute without going to court.

Member (of a company) – A person who has agreed to be, and is registered as, a member, such as a shareholder of a limited company.

Middle Temple – dating back to the 14th Century it is one of the four Inns of Court.

Misconduct – the breach of a relevant principle by a profession in their field.

Misfeasance – Breach of duty in relation to the funds or property of a company by its directors or managers.

Misrepresentation – an untrue statement made by one party to the other which induces them into a contract.

Money Laundering – the practice of concealing the source of funds obtained illegally.

Mortgage – A transfer of an interest in land or other property by way of security, redeemable upon performing the condition of paying a given sum of money.

Mens rea – ‘guilty mind’ the state of mind that a defendant must have had at the time of committing a crime in order to be convicted of the same.

N

Next-of-kin status – should your partner become ill or die, you may not be considered as their ‘next-of-kin’ for medical purposes unless you and your partner make a written agreement beforehand.

No win no fee – also known as  ‘Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs)’. If a claim on a CFA is unsuccessful, the solicitor receives no payment for their work under the CFA. If the claim is successful, the solicitor claims a higher than normal level of fees to reflect their risk in taking the case on a CFA.

Notary – a lawyer regulated by the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Their main duty relates to the authentication and certification of signatures on documents for use overseas.

O

Oath – swearing the truth of a statement.

Objects clause – a clause which forms part of a company’s memorandum of association. It sets out the purposes the company was formed for.

Obligation – a legal duty to do something.

Obligee – someone who, under a contract, receives money or has something done.

Obligor – someone who is bound by a contract to pay money or do something.

Occupier – the person who is in control of a piece of land, such as a tenant.

Offensive weapon – an object that is intended to physically injure
someone.

Offer a promise to do something, or not to do something. If the promise is accepted it becomes legally binding.

Offeree – the person who receives the legally binding offer.

Offeror – the person who makes the legally binding offer.

Official Receiver – the person appointed to act as a receiver in bankruptcies and company winding-up cases. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills appoints official receivers.

Official secret – information which the Government classifies as confidential. It is a criminal offence to disclose an official secret without permission.

Official Solicitor – an officer of the Supreme Court whose duties include acting for people who cannot act for themselves, such as children or people with mental health problems.

Omission – a failure to do something.

Option – a type of contract under which money is paid for a right to buy or sell goods at a fixed price by a particular date in the future.

Overt act – an act done openly and from which the criminal intention of the act is clear.

P

Parole – When a long-term prisoner is released before the end of a sentence, subject to a licence. The offender is still under supervision and can be recalled to prison.

Party litigant – In a court action, someone who appears without a legal representative.

Petition – In criminal cases, a petition sets out the charges against the accused and starts the formal court process. It is also a document used to begin certain types of civil court cases.

Plea – The answer the accused gives to the court at the beginning of a trial when asked if he or she is guilty or not guilty.

Plea in mitigation – Any factors that the accused’s lawyer thinks should be taken into account before the judge passes sentence after a finding of guilt.

Police bail – Someone arrested by the police can be released if they sign a document called an undertaking, which means they promise to come to court at a later date and agree to certain conditions, such as not committing any other crimes.

Post-mortem examination – Examination of a body to establish the cause of death.

Precognition – An interview of a witness by a procurator fiscal or defence lawyer to help them find out more about a crime and prepare for a court case.

Probation – A sentence in criminal cases that means an offender will be supervised by a social worker for a period of between six months and three years.

Procurator fiscal – A legally qualified civil servant who receives reports about crimes from the police and others and then decides what action to take in the public interest, including whether to prosecute someone. They also look into deaths that need further explanation and investigate allegations of criminal conduct against police officers. This term is used in Scotland.

Production – An item shown in court as evidence.

Proof – Either evidence of something or a formal hearing of evidence in a civil case of children’s hearing court.

Public interest – A number of factors taken into account by prosecutors when making decisions, including the interests of the victim, the accused and the wider community.

Q

Quantum – the value of the claim.

Quash – to invalidate or set aside a conviction

Queen’s Bench – one of the three divisions the High Court. Its main function is to deal with civil cases.

Queen’s Counsel (QC)– is a barrister who has been chosen by the Lord Chancellor to serve as counsel to the Crown.

Quiet enjoyment- the right of a tenant to use their land without interference.

Quiet possession– is using property without interference. When property is
sold the buyer should be able to use the property free from interference by the seller.

R

R

Registered European lawyer (REL) – a lawyer from a European state who registers with the SRA to practise law in England and Wales.

Registered Foreign lawyer (RFL) – a lawyer from overseas who registers with the SRA to practice law in England and Wales.

Regulated individual – an individual who is authorised by, and is therefore regulated by, a regulatory body, like the SRA.

Remunerate – to pay or reward someone for something they have done or a service they have provided, such as a company paying an employee.

Revocation – when something is cancelled or taken away, such as the SRA revoking an individual’s permission to practise as a solicitor.

Rights of audience – generally a right of a lawyer to appear and conduct proceedings in court on behalf of their client. Barristers have rights of audience in all courts while most solicitors have rights of audience in lower courts and the UK Supreme Court.

Risk – the likelihood that a particular choice or action might lead to a loss or damage.

Roll of solicitors – a list of all admitted solicitors held by the Law Society.

S

Scrip – a certificate showing the extra shares and fractions of shares the owner is entitled to.

Scrip dividend – a dividend paid in shares instead of cash.

Service -The legal term used to describe communication, whether it be electronic, post or in person delivery, of legal documents.

Skeleton Argument – This is a written legal summary for the court detailing the main factors of a case, such as during an ancillary relief application or a Child Arrangements Order application.

Statement – A written document of legal means for a witness to write down any details they recall of an event or legal matter.

Statute – An Act of Parliament. Statutes take precedence over common law in the UK.

Stay – This is a suspension for proceedings in court. It means no additional action can occur on the case until the Stay is lifted.

Summary Offence – a minor offence that can be heard in a magistrates’ court and which carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison.

T

Third party – A term used to describe someone other than the two sides in a particular situation: For example, it can be used in motor insurance policies to describe other people besides the person who is insured and the company that insures them.

Trade mark attorney – A lawyer regulated by the Intellectual Property Regulation Board

Trainee solicitor – A person completing their training requirements in a law firm or local government before becoming a fully qualified solicitor.

Tribunal – A tribunal consists of a person or group of people who collectively have authority to judge and/or determine claims or disputes. The most well-known tribunal in England and Wales is The Employment Tribunal.

U

Unfair dismissal – an employee is entitled to make a claim for unfair dismissal once they have been employed for two years, full or part-time, and they are dismissed for any of several reasons.

Undisclosed Bankrupt – Someone against whom a bankruptcy order has been made and who has not been discharged from bankruptcy.

Unlawful – illegal or contrary to social convention.

Unsecured Creditor – A creditor who does not hold security (such as a mortgage) for money owed. Some unsecured creditors may also be preferential creditors.

V

Valuation– Is the process that determines the value or worth of an asset.

Voluntary Liquidation – A method of liquidation not involving the courts or the Official Receiver. There are 2 types of voluntary liquidation – members’ voluntary liquidation for solvent companies and creditors’ voluntary liquidation for insolvent companies.

Voluntary disclosure– Is a tax program where a delinquent taxpayer discloses information voluntarily to avoid any liabilities or prosecution prior non-disclosure.

Vendor– Is the seller of something. Most often used to refer a transaction involving real property.

Venue– The location proposed of a judicial hearing.

Vicarious liability– Is where an employer of an employee injures someone through negligence whilst in the course of employment.

Vesting order– is a way where the High Court transfers land without the need for a conveyance. 

Vexatious litigant– is a person who regularly brings court cases which have little chance of succeeding.

Violent disorder– is when  three or more people in a gathering are threatening to or using unlawful violence. 

Void– unable to be enforced by the law.    

W

Warrant – a legal document permitting the police to take certain actions such as arresting a suspect or searching a property.

Waiver– an act of relinquishing or refraining from asserting a legal right.

Will – a legal document declaring a person’s wishes about the way their estate should be distributed upon their death.

Winding-up – (Or liquidation) – the procedure whereby the assets of a company (or partnership) are gathered in and realised, the liabilities met and the surplus, if any, distributed to members.

Winding-up Petition – A winding-up petition is a petition presented to the court seeking an order that a company be put into compulsory liquidation.

Winding-up Order – Order of a court, usually based on a creditor’s petition, for the compulsory winding up or liquidation of a company or partnership.

Without prejudice – when this is written on the document it can not be used as evidence. It is frequently used on letters between solicitors relating to negotiations on the purchase of property.

Witness – someone who watches a document being signed to verify the authenticity of the document; or a person who testifies regarding an event that they know information about. 

X

Y

Youth Court – A youth court is a special type of magistrates’ court for people aged between 10 and 17. As with a magistrates court, there are three magistrates or one district judge presiding over proceedings. There is no jury.

Z

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