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Do You Speak Legalese? Posted by on Mar 28, 2019 in English Language, English Vocabulary, News

There’s a lot going on in the news which sounds pretty confusing if you don’t have a law degree. In fact, much of it is pretty confusing even if you have a law degree. An actor accused of making a false claim to police has all charges against him dropped, but the prosecutor says he’s guilty. The President of the United States maintains that a report has cleared him of all wrongdoing even though the Attorney General of the United States says that he isn’t totally cleared.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

See what I mean? And that was only this week!

Language which was once exclusively reserved for television courtroom dramas is now being used by everybody on Twitter. Experts who appear on talk shows to explain legal decisions are now as famous as professional athletes. Legal terms and phrases are now common elements of daily English conversation. If you want to understand, or at least try to understand what’s going on in the news, then you need to learn some of these idioms and expressions and what they mean. And, on a more practical level, knowing this material may someday help you if you find yourself needing legal advice.

We call this stuff legalese. It is the special, unique language of the practice of law. Medical terminology can only be fully understood by doctors, and legalese can likewise only be fully appreciated by lawyers. Nevertheless, having even a superficial grasp of legalese is important today. Here are some of the basics.

  • Absolve – Declared free from blame and guilt.
  • Affidavit – A written statement confirmed under oath, and used as evidence in court.
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – The standard of proof in any legal case in a U.S. court of law. Guilt can only be determined if it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Burden of Proof – When somebody has the burden of proof, then he or she is required to present evidence to prove his or her claims. In many legal cases in the United States, the burden of proof falls to the prosecution.
  • Cease and Desist – An order or proclamation issued by a judge to cease and desist forces someone to now and permanently stop doing something.
  • Contempt of Court – If you violate the rules set down by a judge in his or her courtroom, you can be cited for contempt of court. The penalties range from a rebuke to jail time.
  • Damages – Money paid by one person to another as a settlement in a court case.
  • Due Process – The formal legal procedures that must be followed to protect the rights of an accused. Not going through due process is considered a violation of civil rights.
  • Exonerated – Absolved of blame or wrongdoing, especially after long consideration.
  • Extortion – To obtain, or attempt to obtain, something through threats and intimidation – usually money.
  • Fine Print – The wording on a contract which is often inconspicuous or appears to be inconsequential. These are usually restrictions and details which, if not adhered to, could cancel the contract.
  • Injunction – A court order either forcing someone to do something or restraining them from doing something.
  • Jurisprudence – The legal system and the theories behind it. A legal scholar is an expert in jurisprudence.
  • Lawsuit – A dispute brought to a court of law for settlement.
  • Litigation – The act of bringing a case to court. Someone who frequently files lawsuits is litigious.
  • Lodge a Complaint – A formal notification, filed in court, of a grievance against one side by another. Unless the complaint is resolved, more serious legal matters may be taken.
  • No Strings Attached – Unconditional, without any obligation.
  • Null and Void – Something, like an agreement, which has been canceled and is therefore irrelevant.
  • Obstruction of Justice – Doing something which would impede or influence legal authorities and the justice system.
  • Perjury – Lying under oath, violating an oath, or making false or misleading statements under oath.
  • Precedent – A previous legal case which is relevant to a current case. Some precedents are binding, meaning that the ruling in the previous case cannot be ignored in the current case.
  • Subpoena – As a noun, it means a legally binding summons to appear as a witness. It can also be a verb, meaning that you have ordered someone to appear as a witness.
  • Suborn Perjury – Persuading someone to commit perjury.
  • Turn a Blind Eye – To see a wrongful act or situation and ignoring it. This is an act of omission, meaning that it may have legal consequences.

These are just a few of the most basic terms and phrases. Are there any that you have heard which you don’t understand? I’ll be happy to help explain them. Please feel free to leave questions and comments below.

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