Legal Glossary by North Carolina Court System / Mecklenburg County
Absolute Divorce – type of divorce in North Carolina that allows the parties to end a marriage and terminate property rights. Often referred to as a “simple divorce” or “no-fault” divorce. Parties can enter into another marriage after the divorce is final. Either party is entitled to absolute divorce if they have been continuously living separate for one year, and one of the parties has lived in NC for at least six months before the divorce action is filed.
Acceptance of Service – when the Defendant in a case agrees to the proceedings and will not require the papers to be served upon him/her.
Acknowledgment – statement of an acceptance of responsibility.
Affiant – the person who swears to the Notary Public that his/her statement or documents are true.
Affidavit – a document containing information the person swears to be true. Usually sworn to in the presence of a Notary Public.
Alimony – support paid to dependent spouse – designed to enable dependent spouse to maintain the standard of living experienced during the marriage. Can be requested in a divorce action or in action for alimony without divorce, but must be requested prior to the entry of a final order of divorce.
Alternate Dispute Resolution – working with a mediator who helps two parties in dispute resolve their differences mutually, or with an arbitrator who listens to the parties and makes a non-binding decision. Both of these approaches take place outside the formal court process, and that frees up valuable court resources.
Amicus Curiae – Latin for “friend of the court.” It is most often, unsolicited advice given to a trial judge or appeals court by a person or organization interested, but not involved in a dispute.
Annulment – a case brought seeking to declare marriage void. This is a legal action and not the type sought for religious reasons. Grounds for annulment must have existed at the time of the marriage and include: bigamy, kinship, underage, impotency, false representation of pregnancy, incompetence, or duress.
Answer – the defendant’s response to the plaintiff’s complaint. The answer admits or denies the claims in the plaintiff’s complaint.
Appeal – a legal action which seeks review by a court of a lower court decision.
Appellant – the side that lost in the trial court and has filed an appeal. Sometimes called the petitioner.
Appellee – generally, the side that won in the trial court, and whose victory is being appealed by the losing side. Sometimes called the respondent.
Arbitration hearing – an informal legal proceeding held before a neutral person called an arbitrator.
Arbitrator – the person who presides at an arbitration hearing and renders a decision on the case.
Arraignment – when the defendant appears in Superior Court and enters a plea of guilty or not guilty to a felony charge.
Bail – money or other form of security given to gain a person’s release from custody. A bail bond is one form of security.
Bar – general term referring to a group of attorneys – example: “The Bar of the 26th Judicial District is active in community issues.”
Bench – term used to refer to judges or the court – example: “Please approach the bench” refers to approaching the judge.
Biological Father – the natural father of a child.
Breach of Contract – a violation of a contractual responsibility, either by failing to perform or by interfering with another person’s performance; when a party does not hold up their end of the deal as described in a contract.
Burden of Proof – the duty to prove disputed facts. In criminal cases, the burden rests on the prosecutors. In civil cases, the burden most often is carried by the plaintiff.
Business Court – a session of Superior Court devoted to complex business cases, presided over by a specially-designated judge.
Child Custody – action requesting the court to determine the legal and physical custody of a child or children. May be between natural parents and other parties such as grandparents.
Child Custody Mediation – divorced parents who have unresolved issues about child custody or visitation may use this non-adversarial alternative to litigation. Fifty-five counties have a Child Custody Mediation Program, and in most cases, parents are required to participate in this program before proceeding through the traditional court system. Many parents are able to see what is best for the child and reach an agreement without returning to court.
Child Support – action for funds to support a minor child or children.
Civil – not criminal. In a civil action, one person or entity is suing another, usually for money damages.
Civil Action Number – a number assigned to each case by the Clerk’s Office. This number must be found on all documents filed in a case to help the Clerk’s Office keep a record of all papers in the case. Usually begins with the year, then initials identifying the type of case, the case number and the judge’s initials in some instances.
An example is: 99 – CVD – 00000 (XYZ).
Civil Case – any case that does not involve criminal charges.
Civil Clerk’s Office – the office that handles the filing of civil cases.
Civil Court – a court that only hears civil cases – no criminal cases are heard.
Civil Procedure – the rules and process that govern how a civil case is presented in court; includes presentation of evidence, trial conduct, and the process of appealing a decision.
Clerks of Court – the clerks of Superior Court in each county of the state exercise the judicial power of the state in the probate of wills, administration of estates, and the handling of special proceedings such as adoptions and foreclosures. Clerks also keep the county court records. They are elected to four-year terms.
Common Law – older than our nation, it originated in England and came to America with the colonists. It is law that comes from tradition and judicial decisions, not from some legislative act. Sometimes called case law.
Complaint – the document which, when filed with the court, initiates a lawsuit. It sets forth the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant.
Concurrent Sentence – prison terms for two or more offenses to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. Example: Two 5-year sentences and one 3-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of five years behind bars.
Consecutive Sentence – prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other. Example: Two 5-year sentences and one 3-year sentence, if served consecutively, result in a maximum of 13 years behind bars.
Contempt – method of enforcing a judge’s order. A person held in “contempt” of the court may be incarcerated.
Continuance – the postponement of an action pending in court to another date.
Counterclaim – a pleading filed by the Plaintiff to respond to charges set forth in defendant’s answer.
Court – the branch of the government that can determine interpretation of laws and resolve legal problems. In North Carolina, several courts exist including Small Claims, District, Superior, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court.
Court Costs – the charges associated with a court case, other than attorney’s fees. The court may order the losing side to pay the winning side’s court costs.
Court of Appeals – 15 judges, elected statewide, make up this intermediate appellate court. Judges sit in rotating panels of three, and they hear appeals from the trial courts in all civil cases and all criminal cases except death penalty cases, and also hear appeals from certain state administrative agencies. Voters elect the judges in statewide, partisan elections for eight-year terms.
Court Reporters – court personnel who record trial proceedings word-for-word. Reporters who use a stenotype machine must be able to write at least 225 spoken words per minute. Those who use a stenomask must be able to record 250 words a minute. If the case is appealed, the verbatim record must be transcribed promptly for the appellate court.
Court-Ordered Arbitration – most civil cases involving claims totaling $15,000 or less are subject to court-ordered arbitration. Arbitration hearings are usually limited to one hour, take place in the courthouse and are conducted by a trained and approved attorney arbitrator who is either appointed by the court or selected by the parties. In many cases, the arbitrator’s award becomes the final settlement, without the need for a trial. Sixty-nine counties in the state have a Court-Ordered Arbitration program.
Custody – the possession of an item or child. Legal custody means that the possession has been granted by the courts; physical custody refers to the actual physical location of the item or child.
Damages – money awarded for an injury or loss due to the unlawful act or negligence of another.
Decree – an order entered by the court that sets forth the judge’s decision.
De Facto – Latin, meaning in fact or actually.
Default Judgment – a judgment entered against a party who does not answer the charges filed against him/her or does not appear in court. Not used in Domestic cases.
Defendant – a person accused of a crime or a person being sued in a civil action.
De Jure – Latin meaning in law or lawfully.
Discovery – a process whereby the parties find out the witnesses and evidence to be presented by the other side. Discovery includes Requests for Admissions, depositions, interrogatories, and Requests for Production of Documents.
Dismissal with Prejudice – prevents an identical lawsuit from being filed later.
Dismissal without Prejudice – allows a later filing.
District Attorneys – also known as prosecutors, represent the state in all criminal actions brought in Superior and District courts, and in juvenile delinquency cases in which an attorney represents the child. Voters elect a district attorney in each of the 39 prosecutorial districts of the state. Another 438 assistant district attorneys work in those districts. DAs serve four-year terms.
District Court – in civil cases, judges hear cases for all actions involving $10,000 or less. District Court also has preliminary jurisdiction over felony cases and over the trial of all misdemeanors and infractions. This court also has exclusive jurisdiction over all juvenile proceedings, mental health hospital commitments and domestic relations cases. The state has 235 District Court judges who are elected by the voters for a four-year term and serve in 39 districts.
Divorce from Bed and Board – judicial separation: authorizes the party not at fault to live apart from the other spouse. Not a divorce; parties cannot remarry.
Drug Treatment Courts – a court-based intervention program to ensure that chemically dependent offenders receive appropriate treatment and are held strictly accountable for their behavior. Offenders participate for a minimum of one year, appearing before a judge twice a month to report on their progress or setbacks. If the offender does not comply with the strict terms of the program, the judge may order jail time.
Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE) – a form of alternative dispute resolution where a neutral evaluator gives an opinion as to how they think the case would be resolved if it were to go to trial.
Equitable Distribution – distribution of property acquired during the marriage. This property is referred to as “marital property”. Evidence – documents, objects or testimony admitted in a trial to prove certain facts.
Evidence – the documents, testimony or other information presented by the parties to the court to persuade a judge or jury to rule in their favor.
Ex parte – when one party to a case speaks or meets with a judge without the presence of the other party or party’s attorney. This type of communication is highly inappropriate and not allowed except in unusual and emergency circumstances.
Exhibit – a document or other physical object presented to the court as evidence.
Expungement – Process by which a record of criminal conviction is removed by order of the court.
Family Court – one judge hears all issues pertaining to one family such as divorce, child custody, adoption, abuse, neglect and delinquency. Treatment and intervention programs help resolve issues, serve families better, and provide a more efficient use of trial court time.
Family Court Case Manager – staff member of the Family Court who schedules hearings, trials, and assists with referrals to appropriate community resources.
Felony – any of a number of serious crimes such as murder, rape, burglary.
Final Judgment – the decision by the judge that resolves a legal matter unless appealed.
First Appearance – the first time a person comes to respond to criminal charges.
Grand Jury – a body of up to 18 people who decide if there is sufficient evidence to charge a person with a felony.
Grounds – reasons for bringing a case into the judicial system.
Guardian ad Litem – a person appointed by the court to represent the interest of a minor or incompetent during the litigation.
Guardian Ad Litem Program – when a child is thrust into the legal system because of abuse, neglect or dependency, a trained GAL volunteer researches the child’s home and community situation. That volunteer acts as the child’s advocate in court, giving a judge information on the child’s situation and making recommendations for the child’s best interests including a safe, permanent home. More than 3,600 volunteers represent 12,000 children in every county across the state.
Habeas Corpus – Latin for “You have the body.” Most often, a writ of habeas corpus is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner’s continued confinement. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus often is filed in federal courts by state prison inmates who say their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights in some way.
Hearing – a time scheduled when the judge gives the parties an opportunity to present evidence and testimony in support of their claims.
Hung Jury – one whose members cannot reach a verdict because of differences of opinion.
In Camera – in a judge’s chambers, outside the presence of a jury and the public.
Indictment – a formal written accusation charging one or more people with a felony. It is submitted to a grand jury by the prosecuting attorney.
Indigent – a person who can convince the court that he/she cannot afford to pay any costs for legal representation.
Injunction – a court order preventing one or more specific parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.
Judge or Justice – a public official who hears and decides cases brought before a court of law. North Carolina has seven justices on the Supreme Court, 15 judges on the Court of Appeals, 105 Superior Court judges, and 235 District Court judges.
Judgment – the decision of a judge or jury resolving a dispute and determining the rights and obligations of the parties.
Judicial Branch – one of the three co-equal branches of government. The Legislative Branch enacts laws, the Executive Branch enforces laws, and the Judicial Branch interprets and applies laws in specific cases.
Jurisdiction – the power and authority of the court to hear certain cases. For example, the jurisdiction for divorce cases is in civil court.
Legal custody – custody awarded by law – in the instances of children, a form of custody that allows access to the child’s medical records, school records and other matters.
Legitimation – an action brought to prove paternity of a child.
Lien – a legal claim usually against a piece of land for payment of some debt, obligation, or duty. Some forms of liens are tax liens and materialman’s liens.
Litigation – a controversy in a court.
Magistrates – act as judges working around the clock, issuing warrants of arrest, presiding over trials of small claims, ($5,000 or less), and performing marriages. Their offices are usually located in or near the courthouse. The state has 719 magistrates in every county. Magistrates are appointed for two-year terms.
Marital property – the property spouses acquire during their marriage.
Mediated Settlement Conferences – a statewide program dealing with civil Superior Court cases. When parties are in litigation, a mediator helps them arrive at mutually agreeable solutions. The state has nearly 900 certified mediators who conduct mediated settlement conferences. More than half of the cases are settled in this way.
Mediation – a form of alternative dispute resolution where a neutral mediator helps the two parties to agree on a resolution to their case.
Misdemeanor – an offense of lesser gravity than a felony.
Modification – a petition requesting that the court amend an existing order – often used for child support and child custody/visitation.
Moot – not subject to a court ruling because the controversy has not actually arisen, or has ended.
Motion – a document filed with the court seeking to obtain a ruling or order from the court that is favorable to the party filing a motion.
Moving Party – the person or party who files the motion or other paperwork that causes there to be a court date.
Notice – a formal, written announcement communicating scheduling information or other information about a case. The original notice is filed with the clerk of Superior Court and copies are mailed or hand-delivered to parties to the litigation.
Order – the decision of the judge that is put in writing and filed in the court case. The order often requires action and if not complied with, can result in contempt charges.
Pardon – a form of clemency, granted by the governor.
Parole – supervised conditional release of a prisoner. Applies to prison inmates sentenced before the Structured Sentencing Laws were enacted in 1994.
Party – the plaintiff or defendant in a case. The plaintiff is the party who files the lawsuit and the defendant is the party who is being sued.
Plaintiff – the one who initially brings a suit.
Post Release Supervision – similar to parole and for people sentenced under the Structured Sentencing Act.
Postseparation support – temporary alimony designed to provide support for dependent spouse while waiting for full alimony trial. Must be requested prior to the entry of a final order of absolute divorce or it is waived.
Preliminary Hearings – held to determine if there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial.
Preponderance of Evidence – evidence as a whole which shows the fact is more likely than not.
Probable cause for arrest – a fair probability that a crime was committed and a fair probability that the suspect committed that crime.
Probable cause to search – a fair probability that something that may be lawfully seized is located in the place to be searched or on the person to be searched.
Probate – determining the validity of a will.
Probation – alternative to imprisonment. Conditions of freedom for offender in compliance with restrictions or requirements.
Pro Bono – performing or involving free legal services
Pro Se – Latin phrase that refers to a litigant who represents himself/herself without the benefit of an attorney.
Prosecutors – Same as District Attorneys.
Public Defenders – the state provides legal counsel for defendants who have been determined by a judge as financially unable to hire their own attorney. There are 11 public defenders in the state, and 121 assistant public defenders representing indigent people in 13 counties. (If the person is found guilty, he must repay the state). The senior resident Superior Court judge appoints a public defender to a four-year term. In the remaining counties, representation is provided by private attorneys.
Reasonable Doubt – doubt based on reason, arising from evidence or lack of evidence.
Res Judicata – an issue that has been decided by the court; an adjudicated claim.
Relevant/Relevancy – anything that helps to prove or disprove a fundamental fact in the case or issue being taken care of in court
Rule or Ruling – the decision made by a judge.
Sentencing Services – using a network of not-for-profit agencies and state-operated programs, Sentencing Services helps develop sentencing plans for offenders that more effectively use available treatments and correctional resources in criminal cases.
Separate property – property that a spouse owned before a marriage or was acquired in such a way that prevents it from becoming marital property, such as by a will or inheritance.
Service of Process – refers to the manner in which the opposing party receives notice that a case is being filed against him/her. This must be completed in accordance with law in order for the case to be heard and be binding against the opposing party.
Small Claim – a claim for damages at or below a certain monetary amount. In North Carolina, the specified amount is $5,000.
Specific Performance – a way that the court can repay one party when the other party is found to have breached the contract. Instead of allowing the winning party to collect damages, the court makes the breaching party do what they promised to do in the contract. Judges rarely grant specific performance, and only do so when they feel that any damages they could grant are inadequate.
Statutes – another term for the laws that govern a state or nation. These laws are written down and promulgated by the legislative branch of the government. In North Carolina, they are referred to as the General Statutes of North Carolina.
Statute of Limitations – the time within which a lawsuit must be filed. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of lawsuit.
Structured Sentencing Act – enacted October 1, 1994, the law classifies offenders on the basis of the severity of their crime and on the extent and gravity of their prior criminal record. Based on these two factors, structured sentencing provides judges with sentencing options for the type and length of sentences that may be imposed.
Subpoena – a court order that commands a person to appear before a court and makes the person subject to a penalty if they do not act accordingly.
Summary Judgment – a judgment granted in an action without the need for a trial. The judge usually grants a summary judgment when one party has not presented any credible evidence that contradicts the other party’s claim(s). This form of judgment is very rare.
Summons – a document issued by the Clerk of Court to be served on the defendant to notify the defendant that he/she has a civil action filed against him/her and must file an answer within thirty days.
Supreme Court – the seven-member Supreme Court is the state’s highest court. Justices decide questions of law in civil and criminal cases on appeal. The Supreme Court has the power to control and supervise the proceedings of other courts and has the authority to set court schedules and promulgate rules of practice and procedure for the trial courts. Voters elect the chief justice and the six associate justices of the Supreme Court for eight-year terms.
Testate – With a will. Absence of such a document is “intestate.”
Testimony – the evidence that a witness gives in a trial when they speak under oath.
Tort – A civil, not criminal, wrong. An injury against a person or property.
Trial Court Administrators – North Carolina has 12 trial court administrators serving in 14 of the state’s 46 Superior Court districts. They assist in managing the day-to-day administrative operations of the trial courts, including civil case calendaring, jury use, and maintaining local court rules.
Unbundled Services Attorneys – attorneys who are willing to help with parts of your case, such as legal advice, document preparation, or limited appearances, without needing to manage the whole case. The services are offered at an affordable hourly rate, on a “pay as you go” basis, so that the client is never left owing the attorney money. For more information, see Family Court Local Rule 23).
Venue – The particular county in which the court with jurisdiction may hear the case for example, a divorce action is filed in civil court in the county where either the plaintiff or defendant resides).
Verification – when a party to a suit swears that the contents of a document are true and correct – usually sworn to in the presence of a notary public.
Voir Dire – Jury selection process of questioning prospective jurors.
Warrant – Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers to conduct a search or make an arrest.
Witness – a person who can, in a trial, testify under oath about things they have seen or heard directly.