Explanation of legal terms
Below are listed some of the more common legal terms, with a working definition. If you require further explanation, please do not hesitate to ask the lawyer handling your matter, or the Law Society.
ADJOURNMENT: This term means that a court hearing has been put off to another time or day. If not to a fixed day, the term used is adjourned sine die (i.e. Latin for "without a set date").
AFFIDAVIT: An affidavit is a statement in paragraph form that is sworn by the person who makes the statement. Affidavits sometimes replace the need for spoken evidence. They may also be known as "depositions" and are similar to statutory declarations, which are not necessarily intended to be used in the court process.
APPEAL: If you receive an adverse judgment, then you may be able to appeal, which means that a higher judge or a number of judges will review your matter and decide if the first decision was wrong.
If you win your matter, the other side may also appeal against the decision which was made in your favour. An appeal is a limited review and you will not be able to present your evidence in the case again.
BAR: The phrase "admitted to the bar" means that a lawyer has become a barrister (see below).
BARRISTER: A barrister is a lawyer who prefers to appear in court. Barristers practice by themselves, but can share premises with other barristers. Those premises are called "chambers". Barristers often provide opinions and advice on a case which has been prepared by a person's solicitor. Except in very restricted circumstances, barristers cannot be engaged directly by a client, and are retained and instructed on your behalf by your solicitor. Barristers are also called "counsel".
DEFENCE OR ANSWER: In civil matters, these words describe the document which the defendant provides that answers the claims in the plaintiff's written pleadings. It is also known as a "response" or "set off". If it makes a claim against the person who began the legal action, it can be called counterclaim or cross demand.
DEFENDANT: A defendant is a person (or entity) against whom legal action has been taken.
DISBURSEMENTS: Out-of-pocket expenses such as medical reports, photocopying, transcript costs, travel and witness costs which your lawyers will organise on your behalf. The client must provide money to the lawyer to cover these costs associated with their case.
DISCOVERY: Discovery is a process by which categories of documents are made available for inspection by the other side. The documents must be relevant to an issue which is disputed in the case. The court will order that the party gather together relevant documents and make them available for the other party to inspect. The documents thus "discovered" are named or described in a "List of Documents".
EVIDENCE: Evidence is used to prove facts in a case. It can be spoken or written, and sometimes includes objects, photos and documents. Sometimes court evidence is taken from witnesses who appear via video link. Not all evidence is allowable - the court can decide that evidence is "inadmissible", which means that you will not be able to say or use it in court. The rules of evidence are complex and it is important to get advice about the evidence you want to use in your case.
HEARING: "Hearing" is the term for a full court case. Evidence is presented to the court, and the court gets all the information it needs to decide who will win the case. The hearing is the important court date. This term refers to the time when the spoken and/or written evidence is presented to the Court, and can be distinguished from other court dates which are for procedural and preparatory matters, including mentions, directions hearings and interlocutory applications.
CHAMBER OF INTERLOCUTORY SUMMONS: This summons is a document used to bring an existing legal action to court, so that the court can make orders which are needed to get the case ready for hearing. These may also be known as a chamber summons or application and are generally supported by affidavits and not spoken evidence.
INTERROGATORIES: An interrogatory is a series of written questions that must be answered by a party to a legal matter. They are generally answered before the court case is heard, by way of a sworn affidavit.
JUDGE: Judges preside over higher courts, such as the Supreme Court, Federal Court or High Court.
JUDGMENT: This is the decision of the court, and the result of a court case. It may also be described as "Reasons for Decision".
JURISDICTION: This term generally refers to a court system. Each state or territory has its own system, and therefore its own jurisdiction. A federal jurisdiction applies across all the states and territories.
LAW SOCIETY: This is a statutory body that controls the affairs of the legal profession. The Society issues Practising Certificates, regulates conduct rules between lawyers, deals with complaints against lawyers and manages funds designed to compensate people who have lost trust money through the default of a lawyer. If you have any concerns about your lawyer, and are unable to resolve those concerns directly with your lawyer's firm, then you should contact the Law Society and ask for assistance.
MAGISTRATE: A magistrate presides in local courts and courts of summary jurisdiction. These are often called Magistrates Courts. Most legal matters are dealt with by magistrates. A magistrate does not ever sit with a jury.
PARTY, PLAINTIFF, DEFENDANT: A party is one of the people or entities involved in the legal matter. Legal matters are usually referred to by using the names of the parties, i.e. Smith v Jones.
A party who brings a claim is known as a plaintiff (or occasionally, the applicant), and a party against whom a claim is brought is known as a defendant (or respondent). In an appeal, the person who lodges the appeal is called the appellant and the other side is called the respondent.
SOLICITOR: A solicitor is a lawyer who gives legal advice and does legal work, and who can also appear in court, but who does not do court appearances as often as a barrister. Some solicitors are also called partners or associates depending on their seniority. In the Client Lawyer Cost Agreement the term lawyer is used instead of solicitor.
PRACTISING CERTIFICATE: A legal practitioner's licence to practice law in the Northern Territory, which must be renewed annually.
SUBPOENA: This is a document issued by the court which calls a person to give evidence to the court at a certain time. Subpoenas are also called summons to witness, or summons to produce documents.
UNSATISFACTORY JUDGEMENT SUMMONS: If a decision was made against you in court, and you were ordered to pay money to another person, the court may summons you to come and explain why the money has not been paid. If you are having trouble paying, the court might make orders that allow you to pay the money by installments.
WARRANT: This is a document issued by a court, which allows an official, or bailiff, to sell your property to pay a judgment or court order. Warrants are also a court documents that allows the police to arrest you, or to seize property from you.
WRIT, WRIT OF SUMMONS, STATMENT OF CLAIM OR APPLICATION: These words are used to describe the document that starts a legal action. The document which initiates legal proceedings is variously called 'statement of claim', 'originating motion', notice of motion' and 'application'. Usually, it will set out the legal claim being made, and the remedy sought (usually compensation, called 'damages'), but it will not include facts or evidence.
For further information, please contact the Law Society Northern Territory
Produced with the assistance of the Law Society Public Purposes Trust.
Page last updated 9 January 2009