Vocabulary for Law and Justice: Essential Legal Terminology

Legal terminology can often seem like its own separate language, inaccessible and intimidating to those outside the legal profession. Yet, understanding key legal terms can be valuable in many life situations, from understanding a contract to watching a courtroom drama on television.

This article aims to demystify the language of the law, introducing and defining common legal terms across various areas of law and justice.

Table of Contents

We begin with some fundamental terms used in legal contexts.

Word/PhraseMeaning/UsageExample Sentences
PlaintiffThe person who brings a case against another in a court of law“The plaintiff argues that she was unfairly dismissed from her job.”
DefendantAn individual, company, or institution sued or accused in a court of law“The defendant pleaded not guilty to the charges.”
LitigationThe process of taking legal action“The company is involved in numerous litigation cases.”
VerdictA decision on a disputed issue in a civil or criminal case“The jury delivered a verdict of not guilty.”
SubpoenaA writ ordering a person to attend a court“The witness received a subpoena to appear in court next week.”
DepositionThe process of giving sworn evidence“The attorney conducted a deposition with the witness.”
AffidavitA written statement confirmed by oath or affirmation, for use as evidence in court“The witness provided an affidavit detailing what they had seen.”
AcquittalA judgment that a person is not guilty of the crime with which the person has been charged“The defendant was hoping for an acquittal.”
PerjuryThe offense of willfully telling an untruth in a court after having taken an oath“He was found guilty of perjury for lying in his testimony.”
ProbateThe legal process wherein a will is reviewed to determine whether it is valid and authentic“The will is currently going through probate.”
Habeas CorpusA writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court“The prisoner filed a habeas corpus petition to challenge his imprisonment.”

2. Criminal Law Terms

Criminal law deals with crimes and their punishments. Here are some commonly used terms in this area.

Word/PhraseMeaning/UsageExample Sentences
FelonyA serious crime, typically one involving violence or fraud, punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death“Armed robbery is considered a felony.”
MisdemeanorA minor wrongdoing, less serious than a felony“Driving under the influence is a common misdemeanor.”
BailThe temporary release of an accused person awaiting trial, sometimes on the condition that a sum of money be lodged“He was released on $50,000 bail.”
Plea BargainAn agreement in a criminal case where the prosecutor and the defendant agree to a plea of guilty to a lesser charge or to a reduced sentence“His attorney negotiated a plea bargain to avoid a trial.”
ProbationThe release of an offender from detention, subject to a period of good behavior under supervision“He was sentenced to a year of probation instead of jail time.”
ParoleThe release of a prisoner before the completion of a sentence, on the promise of good behavior“He was granted parole after serving five years of his sentence.”
ArraignmentA formal reading of a criminal charging document in the presence of the defendant to inform them of the charges against them“At the arraignment, the defendant pleaded not guilty.”
ExtraditionThe act of sending a person back to their home country or state to face criminal charges“The fugitive is facing extradition back to the U.S.”
WarrantA document issued by a legal or government official authorizing the police or another body to arrest, search, or do something else to a person or property“The police executed a search warrant on his house.”
Capital PunishmentThe legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime“Many countries have abolished capital punishment.”

3. Civil Law Terms

Civil law covers a broad range of legal matters, including contractual disputes, divorces, and property law. Here are some terms used in this context.

Word/PhraseMeaning/UsageExample Sentences
TortA wrongful act or an infringement of a right leading to civil legal liability“Negligence is a common tort in personal injury cases.”
InjunctionA judicial order that restrains a person from beginning or continuing an action threatening or invading the legal right of another“The judge granted an injunction to stop the publication of the book.”
AlimonyA husband’s or wife’s court-ordered provision for a spouse after separation or divorce“He was ordered to pay alimony to his ex-wife.”
MediationIntervention in a dispute to resolve it“They agreed to try mediation before taking the matter to court.”
LienA right to keep possession of property belonging to another person until a debt owed by that person is discharged“The bank has a lien on the property until the mortgage is paid off.”
DefamationThe action of damaging the good reputation of someone, includes slander and libel“She is suing the newspaper for defamation.”
Breach of ContractA legal cause of action in which a binding agreement is not honored by one or more of the parties“He sued his former employer for breach of contract.”
Power of AttorneyThe authority to act for another person in specified legal or financial matters“Her daughter holds power of attorney in case of illness.”
EasementA right to cross or otherwise use someone else’s land for a specified purpose“They granted an easement to the city to build a bike path.”
CustodyThe protective care or guardianship of someone or something“In the divorce, she was awarded custody of the children.”


The law may seem complex, and opaque, but understanding some of its key terminology can make it more accessible and less intimidating. While this article has covered some of the most common legal terms, it is important to remember that legal language can vary significantly between different jurisdictions and legal traditions. As such, always consult a legal professional for advice on specific legal matters or concerns.

Niaj A A Khan is an ESL Instructor with over 7 years of experience in teaching & developing resources at different universities and institutes. Mr. Khan is also a passionate writer working on his first book, "Learn English at Ease."

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