37 Common Courtroom Phrases
37 Common Courtroom Phrases
In the legal world, we often use complicated jargon – a term affectionately known as “legalese”. However, for those who find themselves in a courtroom without having attended law school, all these courtroom phrases and words can be confusing and intimidating. If you are the defendant, the stakes are even higher.
That’s why we’re putting together this guide on some of the most common courtroom phrases you might expect to hear during any legal proceeding. While this article is no substitute for sound legal counsel, here at Morales & Sparks, we pride ourselves on treating all of our clients as family. This commitment means we will do everything we can to give you the confidence to get through your legal issues as painlessly as possible.
Common Courtroom Phrases and Terms in Civil Cases:
Let’s start with some common courtroom phrases you can expect to hear primarily in civil cases. A civil case is when there is a lawsuit which has the focus of either a contract or a tort. The term tort usually means someone has committed an act that results in injury or damage to another.
- Complaint: the legal action in a civil case. This is a very important pleading.
- Parties to the lawsuit: the plaintiff and the defendant, also known as the litigants.
- Summons: a document that is either personally served by a sheriff or process server or mailed to a defendant telling them that they need to appear in court. The summons lets the defendant know there is a lawsuit pending against them.
- Plaintiff: an entity or person who files a legal action against another person or entity, who is the defendant. The legal action is based upon the fact that the defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff.
- Depositions: statements taken under oath and out of court to give each party information about what the opposing party will be saying at the trial. Most of the time, in many states, either the plaintiff or the defense may take depositions of the opposing party or of other witnesses.
- Discovery phase: pre-trial phase that applies after the summonses have been issued in order to prepare both the plaintiff and defense for trial. During this phase, both parties will be taking depositions.
- Interrogatories: written questions one party submits to the other requesting they provide the answers. The other party’s attorney will receive these questions, and they will have a specific amount of time to answer them. Interrogatories are very similar to depositions, except they are in written form and are sent to the other party to answer.
- Jurisdiction: the term used to describe which court will hear the case in a civil case. In a civil lawsuit, the court that hears the case is determined by the court that has jurisdiction over the case. Federal court jurisdiction can be established when parties are from different states, and the claim is for more than $75,000.
- Petitioner: the person who files the complaint.
- Pleadings: documents filed with the court that give the basic positions of the parties. While pleadings may not be one of the most common legal phrases, they are a very important part of the process in civil cases.
- Respondent: the person who answers the complaint. Petitioner and respondent are terms used in domestic violence cases.
- Settlement: either the plaintiff or defendant will offer the other side a monetary amount they will accept to conclude the case. If either the plaintiff or defense believes a case may not be winnable, or may not result in a monetary award as great as the settlement, they may decide to settle. This outcome is very common, since most civil cases will not go to trial, and settlements can occur any time prior to the jury issuing a verdict or decision regarding the case.
- Subpoena: a written order that compels someone to testify or provide evidence. The subpoena is a method of discovery asking that the other party provide documents to be inspected.
Courtroom Language in Criminal Cases:
While some courtroom phrases and words are common in both criminal and civil cases, some are unique to criminal cases. When a person is arrested and charged with a crime, the prosecutor is responsible for filing those charges. General classifications for the crimes are either misdemeanors or felonies.
- Misdemeanors: crimes that carry a penalty of up to one year in jail.
- Felonies: crimes that carry a penalty of more than one year in prison.
Things Defense or Prosecuting Attorneys Say:
General courtroom phrases make up the everyday language of prosecuting and defense attorneys, from the time someone is arrested until the closing arguments at trial.
- Approach the bench: a statement whereby either the prosecutor or defense attorney asks to talk to the judge privately during the course of the trial. If the judge allows the requesting attorney to approach the bench, opposing counsel must also be allowed to approach the bench in order to hear the conversation. This conversation may include items such as what order the witnesses should be or problems of a technical nature.
- Chambers, your honor: The attorney would like to discuss something with the judge in the total privacy of the judge’s chambers. It is possible that during the course of a trial, either the prosecutor or defense attorney will say, “Your honor, respectfully, I would like to discuss this matter outside the courtroom,” which is the most polite way of asking to discuss a matter with the judge in their chambers.
- Defense rests: The defense has finished putting on their case. The defense attorney will usually say this at the conclusion of their arguments.
- Directed verdict: The defense is asking the judge to find a verdict of not guilty because the prosecution has not proven its case. At any time during the trial, the prosecution may ask for a directed verdict. However, the judge may not direct a verdict of guilty, because doing so would prevent the defendant of their right to a jury trial, which is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
- Direct examination: when the witnesses are testifying and answering questions posed by the attorney who called them to the stand. Though television shows may use lawyer phrases like, “I want to call a new witness,” this rarely happens in a real-life courtroom because attorneys are not permitted to call witnesses who have not been previously disclosed.
- Dismissal for cause: the process by which the defense or prosecuting attorney can ask a potential juror be dismissed because they might harbor personal biases that would make them unable to serve on the jury.
- Disregard: a request by either prosecution or defense to the judge to ask the jurors to not consider a statement that has been made. Though the judge may ask the jurors to disregard something, it is difficult for them to disregard a statement they have heard.
- Government rests: The prosecution has finished putting on its case. As with the defense’s similar statement, the prosecution is saying they have also concluded their arguments.
- Move to strike: The attorney who says this wants the court reporter to remove a statement the witness has made from the record. The reasoning is usually that the witness has offered an opinion on an issue they were not questioned about.
- Objection: When a trial is taking place, you may hear either the defense or prosecuting attorneys say, “Objection,” one of the most common words used in court. This word means they are taking issue with a statement or question posed by the other side. The objection to the inclusion of a statement or question is based on a legal rule or procedure for which the judge must determine relevance. Though the rules of evidence are plentiful, one of the most common courtroom objections is to witness statements where the witness is talking about something they heard from someone else. Because the person who made the statement is unavailable to present testimony and to be cross-examined, hearsay is generally not admissible.
- Peremptory challenge: types of challenges or dismissals for no reason in particular, other than the attorney believes the juror would not help their client’s case. Each attorney’s restrictions on peremptory challenges mean these challenges cannot discriminate on the basis of gender or race. In federal court cases where someone is charged with a capital crime, the defense and the prosecution are each allowed 20 peremptory challenges. For a misdemeanor case, each side is permitted three peremptory challenges.
- Plead the Fifth: a plea referring to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to not incriminate oneself. This plea is uncommon in criminal trials because if the defense attorney believes the defendant would incriminate themselves by testifying on the witness stand, the attorney will likely not have them testify.
- Release on OR: release on one’s own recognizance or promise to come back to court for trial. This request is usually made at the bail hearing by the defense attorney. OR means there is no bail set, and the judge may impose additional conditions on release, such as checking in with a probation officer and abstaining from using drugs or alcohol.
- Voir dire: the questions the judge or attorneys ask the potential jurors. These questions are designed to find out whether the potential jurors would be able to make a decision without bringing any personal biases or prejudices because of prior knowledge of the case or past personal experiences. Both defense and prosecuting attorneys participate in voir dire.
- Your witness: The attorney has finished questioning their witness and is offering the other side the opportunity to cross-examine. Both the prosecution and the defense will call witnesses.
Things Judges Say:
The courtroom is under the judge’s purview. As each courtroom is different depending upon the judge presiding, it is important to note the legal phrases used in court so you can always abide by the rules of each individual judge. Certain legal catchphrases will only be used by judges.
- Closing arguments: concluding statements by both the prosecution and defense. After both the prosecution and defense have presented their cases, all the witnesses have been called and both sides have had an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses, closing arguments will begin. Following closing arguments, the judge will give instructions to the jury and tell them about the highest standard of proof.
- Instructions: specific details a judge provides prior to court starting. Judges’ most common instructions include asking the members of the courtroom to respect the rules of the court, which include turning off cell phones and rising when the judge enters and exits the courtroom. Judges will also instruct the witnesses, the jurors and members of the gallery when they are in the courtroom. A judge will tell the witnesses when they can be seated and when they can step down from the witness stand. Judges will also instruct the witnesses to answer the questions and to proceed with their testimony.
- Mistrial: consequence if the jurors are unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Once the jury re-enters the courtroom after deliberation, the judge will ask them if they have reached a unanimous verdict. If the jury cannot reach a verdict after much deliberation, the judge will declare a mistrial.
- Pro se: the defendant has decided to act as their own attorney. A judge will generally not be pleased when a defendant decides to proceed pro se. A judge will ask the defendant if they understand they have the right to be represented by an attorney, even if they cannot afford one. Court-appointed attorneys are defense attorneys or public defenders who represent those who cannot afford to hire their own private attorneys.
- Request for admission into evidence: request by either the prosecution or defense to gain permission of the court or judge to allow the court to consider something as evidence. Whenever a prosecutor or defense attorney wants to admit an item into evidence, they must make this request. The judge will then say the item will be admitted as an exhibit and number it.
- Standard of reasonable doubt: measure by which the jury is instructed to find a defendant guilty. The only reason the jurors should find the defendant guilty is if they have no doubt that the defendant is guilty or if any of their doubts are unreasonable.
- Sustained: statement made by a judge at trial in response to an attorney stating, “Objection.” Opposing counsel will need to change the way they phrase a question before the witness answers it. One of the most common judge sayings is when a judge sustains the objection. If an objection is overruled, the judge will permit the witness to answer the question.
Courtrooms can be filled with rapid-fire dialogue, affirmative tones and statements. The best way to follow along in your own trial or as a juror is to understand the language. If you’re preparing for a hearing or a potential lawsuit, consult with a local attorney.
At Morales & Sparks, we are eager to connect with you. As world-class bilingual defense attorneys, we are perfectly suited to give you the kind of sound legal advice you need to navigate an often-complicated process. If you live in the Austin, Georgetown, or Central Texas area and need a criminal defense attorney, contact us today.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to provide general information and is not to be constituted as legal advice. If you need help with a specific issue, please seek the advice of an attorney.