Legal Jargon - what does it all mean?
Let’s talk in everyday language
Lawyers have a whole grab bag of words and phrases which to someone who has never had any involvement in the legal system might just seem a bit strange.
We think that when you sit down to talk with your lawyer, it’s really important that your lawyer breaks things down and uses every day language. Hopefully that means that you feel comfortable, and most importantly, that you understand what is going on.
This is especially important when you are going to see a lawyer about being investigated by police or charged with an offence. We know that this can already be a very stressful time, so why make it harder with legal jargon?
Here is a list of words and phrases that you might encounter if you are being investigated by police or charged with an offence.
Accused: A person charged with committing an offence. Usually the word “Accused” is used in relation to more serious charges that are heard in the District Court. For summary matters in the Local Court, “Defendant” is usually the term used.
Adjournment: When the court sets a new date in the future for your matter. It can also refer to any break during the court sitting on a particular day, like morning tea or lunch.
Antecedents: A person’s criminal history and background.
Brief of evidence: The documents and exhibits gathered by police or other investigating agencies which is used by the prosecution to try and prove their case against you. The brief can include things like witness statements, photographs, videos and expert witness statements.
Case conference: A meeting between the prosecution and defence lawyers to discuss the issues in contention and to negotiate on whether or not there are any offences that the accused is willing to plead guilty to. Case conferences occur in indictable matters when the proceedings are still in the Local Court.
Committal proceedings: Committal proceedings refers to the time between when an indictable matter is commenced in the Local Court until such time that it is transferred to the District or Supreme Court to be finalised.
Charge: The allegation or the detail of the crime the prosecution says you have committed.
Charge certificate: Also referred to as charge certification, it is a document which requires the a lawyer for the DPP to certify the charges that will proceed in the committal proceedings of an indictable offence.
Court Attendance Notice: The document that lists the charges and sets out the details of the criminal offence the prosecution alleges has been committed. Court Attendance Notices or “CAN’s” are used in the Local Court.
Criminal history: A record of the crimes a person has been found guilty of.
Cross-examination: Questions asked of a witness by the lawyer of the opposing side.
Defendant: A person accused of committing a crime. Usually, the term “defendant” is used in the Local Court and the term “accused” is used in the higher courts like the District and Supreme Courts.
Deliberations: The discussions that a jury has about whether a person is guilty or not guilty of an offence. Jury deliberations are secret.
District Court: A higher court than the Local Court. All matters start in the Local Court and more serious charges will be finalised in the District Court, either by way of sentence before a judge or a trial before a jury.
Dock: Where the accused person usually sits, particularly in the District Court. Most Local Courts do not have a dock and the defendant usually sits directly behind their lawyer.
Evidence: Information given in court by a witness and used in the court case. On TV, the term “testimony” is often used. In Australia, we would simply refer to a person’s evidence.
Evidence-in-chief: Questions asked by a prosecutor of a prosecution witness, or by a defence lawyer of a defence witness.
Exhibits: Exhibits refer to physical evidence like photographs, documents, clothing and videos as an example.
Hearing: A hearing is when evidence is presented in court, legal arguments are heard and a Judge or Magistrate makes a decision.
Indictable offence: An indictable offence is a more serious criminal offence which is usually heard in the District Court or Supreme Court. Indictable offences are heard by a judge and, if the person has pleaded not guilty, will be heard by a judge and jury in most instances. Some indictable offences are finalised in the Local Court unless the prosecutor decides to have the matter heard in the District Court.
Indictment: The formal document which has the details of the criminal offence a person is charged. This document will be read out in court and an accused person will be asked if they wish to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. The indictment is always on a blue piece of paper. An indictment is used in the District Court or Supreme Court.
Judge: A judge is in charge of a courtroom in the Supreme Court or District Court. He or she will make decisions about the law during a trial and determine any penalty.
Local Court: All matters commence in the Local Court. The Local Court will hear and finalise less serious offences known as summary offences. More serious offences which will ultimately be finalised in the District or Supreme Courts are case managed in the Local Court until they are ready to be transferred to the higher court.
Magistrate: A Magistrate is the person in charge of the Local Court. they make decisions during summary hearings and determine sentences for less serious matters. They also case manage more serious indictable matters before they are ready to be transferred to a higher court.
Matter: “Matter” is another way of saying “court case”.
Mention: A “Mention” is where a matter is heard in court but only for a brief time. Mentions can include where the court is asked by the defence or prosecution for more time to get ready, where the court sets dates in the future, for bail applications, to find out the progress of the matter and other brief court appearances.
My friend: When a lawyer is speaking with a magistrate or judge, he or she will often refer to the lawyer for the opposing side as “my friend” or “my learned friend”. This can sound really strange when your defence lawyer refers to the prosecutor as their friend. It is based in tradition and respect for colleagues and doesn’t necessarily mean they are actually friends!
Offender: This term is used when a person has been found guilty of an offence. Before that, a person charged with an offence will be referred to as the defendant or the accused.
Plea: The decision a person charged with an offence makes – so whether they are guilty of the offence or whether they are not guilty.
Plea negotiation: When lawyers for the defence and the prosecution negotiate about finalising a criminal matter. This might include negotiating on what offence you are charged with and what is written in the statement of facts. The prosecution and defence cannot agree to a penalty however – this is a decision for only a magistrate or judge.
Representations: When your defence lawyers writes to the prosecution to negotiate on different parts of your criminal matter, for instance, to make changes to the statement of facts or having a charge withdrawn or changed.
Sentence: The punishment given to a person when they have been found guilty of a criminal offence.
Statement of facts: A document that sets out what the prosecution says happened at the time of the offence.
Summary hearing: A hearing in the Local Court after a person pleads Not Guilty of the offence they are charged with.
Summary matter: A less serious offence which is heard and finalised in the Local Court.
Supreme Court: A higher court above the District Court where very serious indictable matters are heard. Bail applications can also be heard in the Supreme Court after a bail application in the Local Court has been refused.
Trial: A hearing in the District or Supreme Court where evidence is heard. Most trials will be before a judge and a jury but in some instances can be heard just by a judge.