Here is an alphabetical glossary of common legal terms you might need in order to write crime fiction, or any other fiction for that matter!
I will update the list as I come across more, and let me know if you can think so some more yourself.
Scroll to the very bottom for a fab infographic to help you find your way around a courtroom!
**Disclaimer: I’m working to understand which of these terms are specific to the UK, USA or otherwise and will state these where I know them. In the meantime if you want to use these in a story, please double check it fits with your country setting 🙂
As in: News of his acquittal soon reached the media.
The official decision that a person is not guilty of the crime they were accused of is called an acquittal.
As in: After some deliberation, the Judge ruled that the confession was admissible.
A document, testimony or physical evidence that can be introduced to a jury or judge to help the case.
Adversarial System of Justice
In common law countries this is the legal system in which advocates represent each sides’ position before an impartial person (judge) or group (jury). This refers to the UK, USA and most of Europe, excluding France and the Netherlands who adopt the inquisitorial system of justice.
Appeal, Appeal Courts
Also referred to as ‘Appellate courts’, a case is presented at this type of court if the party is unhappy with the original decision made in court.
A formal reading of charges in front of both parties in court, and the accused enters a plea of guilty or not guilty.
This refers to a person acting on another’s behalf in a legal context. In a courtroom an attorney is usually a lawyer.
As in: Bail was set at £1 million.
This refers to the release of the accused under specific conditions prior to trial. It is also used as the word to describe the amount of money required to meet conditions of bail.
Beyond reasonable doubt
As in: “We can prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that this man is guilty”
Chain of Custody
This refers to the documented paper trail of all evidence from the point at which it is seized, through custody, control, transfer, analysis and disposition.
A defendant is judged as guilty, they are ‘convicted’.
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
In England and Wales, the CPS prosecute criminals on behalf of the Police. This is because, in the example of a murder trial, there is no victim to make the accusation. You can find out more here.
This refers to the party conducting legal proceedings on behalf of a person who is being accused.
This is the individual or group being accused of a crime. Also referred to as ‘the accused’.
A formal accusation that a person has a committed a crime.
This is a court order that prevents a named person from taking specific action.
This describes something that cannot be physically touched. When referring to evidence, this describes a spoken promise, thoughts and good will.
In common law countries (see Adversarial System of Justice) criminal cases are presented to a jury who will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
In the UK jurors are called for service in writing by the Lord Chancellor. Jurors must be between 18 and 75 years of age, and there will be between 9 and 12 jurors in total.
You can get help with legal costs (e.g. the cost of advice or legal representation) if your earnings are within a certain bracket. At the time of writing (Feb 2016) in the UK this is <£2,657 per month income.
Read my blog post about the differences between these, including examples of other legal terms for death here.
Miscarriage of Justice
A miscarriage of justice usually refers to the conviction of a person for a crime they didn’t commit. It may also be referred to as ‘a wrongful conviction’.
As in: “Objection! Leading the Witness!”
‘Objection’ is a statement of disapproval made by a lawyer during legal proceedings. Reasons for objecting to a line of inquiry come under one of the following categories: irrelevant, immaterial, incompetent, hearsay, leading, calls for a conclusion, lack of foundation.
The objection should be made immediately, before the witness has a chance to answer. The judge then makes a decision to agree with the objection – ‘sustained’, or disagree – ‘overruled’, in which case the question should then be answered by the witness.
Short for ‘perpetrator’, a criminal. Used mainly in the USA.
This means reasonable grounds to believe a person has committed a crime. ‘Probable cause’ must be evidenced to gain a warrant or permission to search a person for example.
This refers to the party conducting legal proceedings on behalf of a person who is doing the accusing.
To counter evidence or an accusation.
As in: We stopped for recess at 1pm.
This is a break in the trial.
Released on a technicality
The accused is released not because they won, but because the prosecution made a mistake so serious that judge dismisses the charges. This is usually failure to follow due process such as lost or mishandled evidence, not reading the accused their rights, gaining evidence by way of threat etc.
This is to send something back – either sending the accused back into custody or sending a case back to trial from appeals court, for example.
As in: “I sentence you to 30 years imprisonment” said the Judge.
This is the punishment given to the defendant if found guilty.
As in: John was issued a subpoena.
This is the name of an order to appear in court, for which you will receive a penalty for choosing not to appear.
The formal examination of evidence by a judge and/or jury to determine the guilt of the accused party.
Inside a US Courtroom
This fab infographic put together by Livesay & Myers includes some of the phrases included in the glossary:
Over to you
Got any other slang or jargon to add to the list? Heard something on a cop show you don’t understand? Let me know in the comments!