50 Of The Most Used Legal Terms You Really Need To Know

Very often, you’re part of a group that uses legal terminology to better express themselves. While the rest of your group understands these terms, you’re completely at sea. Well, now you needn’t be. We’ve put together some of the most commonly used legal words and expressions to familiarize you with and prepare you better for what you often read in the papers and hear your friends say. More power to you!

1. Writ

It is an order issued by a court in a written format. The Constitution has authorised courts to issue 5 kinds of writs – Habeas Corpus, Mandamus, Prohibition, Certiorari and Quo Warranto. If your fundamental rights are threatened then these writs are what you can count on. A writ petition can be filed in the High Court or the Supreme Court.

2. Habeas corpus

This translates from Latin to “that you have the body” and is an order that an individual who might be unlawfully detained be presented before the court for examination.

3. Mandamus

Mandamus (“We command”) is an order issued by a court of higher jurisdiction to instruct (or command) a lower court, commission, tribunal or an individual to either perform or refrain from committing an action required under law.

4. Prohibition

Here, a higher court orders a lower court or quasi-judicial body to act only within its jurisdiction. This is also known as a Stay Order.

5. Certiorari

Literally translated to “to be certified“, it refers to a writ issued by a High or Supreme Court quashing the order passed by a lower court, quasi-judicial body or tribunal.

6. Quo warranto

This translates from Medieval Latin to “by what warrant?” and is a writ sent out to an individual who holds a particular civil office not entitled to him or her to step down from holding that office.

Fun Fact: The entire constitution of India was hand written by one person who used 254 pen-holder nibs.

The original draft of the Constitution of India was handwritten by Prem Behari Narain Raizada in a flowing italic style with beautiful calligraphy. It took a total of 6 months to write and in the process he used 254 pen-holder nibs of type NO.303.

When asked by Pandit Nehru for his charges he refused to take any but rather asked that he mention his name along with his grandfathers on a few selected pages. This request was granted.

The original copy of the Indian Constitutions is preserved in a special helium filled case in the Library of the Parliament of India.

7. Affidavit

This is a statement written on oath and signed by a deponent who swears that the contents in the statement are entirely true to the best of his knowledge.

8. Perjury

This is a deliberate lie under oath or as made in a sworn affidavit.

9. Summons

A summons is a command to a person to appear in court, in writing.

10. Public interest litigation (PIL)

Under Indian law, this type of litigation is the power that judicial activism gives to the public by the courts. This is litigation filed by the member of the Public in the interest of the Public.

11. Cross-examination

When a trial is held, each of the two sides calls its witnesses and, under oath, can also question the opposite side’s witnesses. While a party’s own witnesses are put through examination, cross-examination refers to questioning the witnesses of the opposite side.

12. Defence

The response to a claim by the plaintiff is called his or her defence.

13. Defendant

The person who defends or denies a charge made against him or her. The defendant could also be the party against whom relief is sought in a suit or an action.

14. Search warrant

This is a written order issued by a judge authorizing the examination of a place to discover stolen or contraband items or proof of guilt that can be used to prosecute a criminal.

15. Undertaking

This is a promise in writing offered as security to perform a particular act needed in a legal action.

16. Probate

This is the court process by which the validity of a will is proved.

Fun Fact: Why Indian Law is so full of Latin expressions

Indian Law is largely influenced by British Law, in particular Common Law. Since Common Law drew a lot from Latin, this language crept into Indian Law. Additionally, Law is heavily influenced by Latin proverbs, which very easily creeps up in courtrooms.

17. Omnibus hearing

Once the accused in a criminal case is produced in court and the formal complaint against him is read out, a criminal pre-trial hearing is held. The goal of this hearing is to see whether the evidence and testimony taken at the time of arrest can be admitted in court or not. Such hearings are the jurisdiction of the state laws and local courts, and vary according to region.

18. Foreclosure

This is a court order that ends an individual’s ownership of property.

19. Ultra vires

This Latin term means “beyond powers”. It is usually directed at corporations and their officials who act outside the powers given by the law. These actions are therefore illegal and considered ”ultra vires.”

20. Restitution

When the court orders the defendant to financially reimburse the victim for costs related to a crime, it means he is making restitution or making good the loss incurred.

21. Restraining order

This is an order by a civil court that grants protection to an individual or a family from external physical abuse. In India, this is called an Injunction and you’ll have to approach a court to obtain one.

22. Subpoena

A subpoena is an order to appear in court to testify as a witness.

23. Prima Facie

This Latin phrase means “on first appearance.” It refers to facts on first sight, without them being proved.

24. Solicitor

This is a general lawyer who deals directly with the public.

25. Plaintiff

The person who brings a case to court.

26. Locus Standi

As with many other terms in here, it originates from Latin and translates to “place of standing”. Locus standi is the right of a party to appear and be heard in a court of law.

27. Cognisable Offense

This means that a police officer is authorized to make an arrest without a warrant and begin investigation with or without a court’s permission.

28. Stay Order

A court order that stops a judicial proceeding temporarily.

29. Adjournment

This is the postponement of a court session by a judge until another time or place is designated.

30. Prosecution

Prosecution can mean two things. It is the act of charging someone with a crime in court. It also refers to the lawyers who to try to prove if a person is guilty of committing a crime.

31. Executor

An individual appointed by one who makes a will, asking to administer it. The duties of the executor include proving the validity of the will, paying off any dues and carrying out the wishes of the deceased as laid down in the will.

32. Extradition

The act of arresting and handing over a criminal wanted for crime abroad, under the terms of an extradition treaty.

Fun Fact: The "John Doe" equivalent in India is "Ashok Kumar"

John Doe is the temporary name given to person whose name cannot be established. In the US and Canada “John Doe” is used commonly used when the name of the person is unknown like in the case of a homicide or if the name cannot be disclosed.

In India, the placeholder “Ashok Kumar” was used by the Delhi High Court in 2018. The court issued an “Ashok Kumar order” against all posts on social media maligning the Kurkure brand. The necessitated the deletion over 20,000 posts from Facebook and several other networks.

33. Guarantor

He is the individual who pledges collateral for a contract signed by another person.

34. Jurisdiction

This is the defined area of judicial authority granted to a court to award judgments on legal issues and administer justice.

35. Ex parte

It is Latin for “from one party”. It refers to situations in court where only one party is present.

36. Power of attorney

A sealed and stamped document that gives one the right to make comprehensive decisions for another. This may be specific to a particular kind of decision; or in general where the representative or agent takes all major decisions for the individual of the power of attorney.

37. Senior counsel

A barrister who has been promoted to the Inner Bar.

38. Settlement

A compromise that is mutually agreed to by two or more parties.

39. Alibi

By way of giving an alibi to the court, the defendant in a case will try to prove that he was not on the scene of crime when it was committed.

Fun Fact: The number of cases pending in Indian courts is over 3.3 crore!

And it could could be more than that now as we’ve taken the number from a 2018 report.

A few other facts related to this,

  • Over a 1000 cases are more than 50 years old.
  • 2 lakh plus cases are over 25 years old.
  • The Supreme court has over 60,000 pending cases. (Source)
  • 43 lakh cases are pending in the High Courts and nearly 8 lakh of them are over a decade old. (Source)
  • With over 7,26,000 cases the Allahabad High court tops the list while Rajasthan high court comes second with 4,49.000 cases. (Source)


40. Remand

Also known as “Pre-trial detention”. When a person is arrested by the police he cannot be detained for more than 24 hours without producing him in court. If required the police can request the court for additional detention, if granted it is called a Remand.

41. Class Action

Class action is taken by several people when there is a similarity between defendants and facts. For instance, if several people take the same drug, which is faulty. They jointly sue the same defendant.

42. Sub judice

When a matter is still under the court’s consideration, it is said to be sub judice.

43. Contempt of Court

An action that comes in the way of the smooth administration of justice in court is said to be contempt of court.

44. Appeal

A challenge to a verdict in a higher court is made through an appeal.

45. Trespass

This is a civil offense related to the illegal interference of one’s rights, property or person.

46. Suo Motu

When an agency acts on its own initiative, the act is called Suo moto.

47. Bail

An amount of money that can be paid by the accused to the court for his release from jail until their trial.

48. Conjugal rights

The right of husband and wife to have sexual intercourse.

49. Appellant

A person who applies to a higher court for a reversal of the decision made by a lower court.

50. Testify

Give evidence as a witness in a court of law under oath.

Are these terms tough to digest? Not at all. With a little effort, you can familiarize yourself with them so that you’re never embarrassed for not knowing what everyone’s talking about. We hope these few terms will spur you on to find more legal expressions currently in common usage and explore their meanings in today’s context.

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