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Legal Definitions

Acquittal: Finding a criminal defendant not guilty of the charge against him or her.

Adjudication: The process of rendering a judicial decision about whether the facts alleged in a petition or other pleading are true. An adjudicatory hearing is the court proceeding in which it is determined whether the allegations of the petition are supported by legally admissible evidence -- also called a "Jurisdictional," or "fact-finding," or evidentiary" hearing.

Adversary System: The United States resolves both civil and criminal cases by using a system in which each party, with or without the help of a lawyer, presents his or her side of the story to the court. The judge, or in some cases the jury, listens to both sides and decides the case.

Allegation: A charge or claim of fact set forth in a petition or other pleading, which is proven true or false at an adjudicatory hearing.

Alternative Dispute Resolution: Rather than going to court, people who have a serious disagreement can go to private, community-based, or court-connected organizations to help them resolve their differences. These organizations include neighborhood mediation centers, private arbitration, and rent-a-judge arrangements. In addition, the court may direct potential litigants to court-annexed mediation or arbitration centers.

Appeals: 1) A losing party may ask a higher court to review a lower court's decision. Appellate review is normally limited to questions of law as applied in the case, not questions of fact. In a criminal

2) An application to a higher court claiming that some error which must be corrected has been made by the trail court.

Appointed Counsel: Attorney designated by the court to render legal assistance to one unable for a variety of reasons to obtain his or her own counsel.

Arraignment: Consists of a reading of the criminal complaint in open court to the defendant and calling upon the

A hearing held before the trial in a criminal case, at which time the defendant is advised of his or her rights, informed of the charge(s) against him or her, and required to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

Arrest: An act by a legal authority, such as the police, taking an individual into custody to answer for criminal charges.

Bail: An amount of money that an accused person leaves with the court to guarantee that he or she will be present at a trial.

Bailiff: A court employee responsible for keeping order in the courtroom.

Bench Trial: A trial where the judge makes the decision. There is no jury in a bench trial.

Bill of Rights: The first the amendments to the United States Constitution, originally passed as a list of the basic rights and freedoms belonging to the people. The government must respect these rights. Rights relating to the judicial system include:

  • a) the right to practice any religion
  • b) the right to speak freely
  • c) the right to a jury trial for serious crimes
  • d) the right not to be tried twice for the same crime
  • e) the right not to testify against oneself
  • f) in a criminal case, the right to a speedy, fair and public trial, to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to confront the witnesses against oneself and to obtain witnesses in ones favor, and to be assisted by a lawyer.

Chambers: Private office suite of the judge and his/her staff. Some proceedings held in chambers may be open to the press if the judge so rules.


  • a) to accuse
  • b) to instruct a jury

Civil Case: A case that involves a disagreement between two parties (or between a party and the government). A preponderance (more than half) of the evidence has to support the decision in a civil case. In ordinance violation cases, there is a "clear and convincing" evidence standard. After a decision has been reached, the winning party may stop the losing part from performing some action or may receive compensation from the losing party

Complaint Screening: The decision-making process by which a case coming to the court's attention is referred for a formal court hearing or any of the diversionary hearings.

Confidentiality: Agreement not to disclose certain information.

  • a) an affront of the court or tribunal in question;
  • b) an obstruction of the court's work;
  • c) disobedience of a judge's order

Continuance: Postponement of legal action, such as a lawsuit, until a later date.

Conviction: Finding by a judge or jury that a person charged with a criminal offense is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing the crime charged.

Court Order:

  • a) directive issued by the court having the authority of the court and enforceable at or by law;
  • b) written command or directive given by a judge

The right of a child's care and control, carrying with it the duty of providing food, shelter, medical care, education and discipline

Damages: Monetary compensation claimed by or awarded to an individual for loss or injury to person, or rights as a result of the negligence or unlawful conduct of another.

Defendant: A person that is charged with a crime in a criminal case.  In a civil case the defendant is the person who is sued by the plaintiff.

Defense: The collected facts and method adopted by a defendant as protection against a plaintiff's action.

Delinquency: The commission of an illegal act by a juvenile, increasingly used to refer only to those acts that would be crimes if committed by an adult, but state laws vary in their definitions.

Dependency: The general term used to categorize abused or neglected children. The specific term used to indicate that the court has assumed wardship.

Detention: The temporary confinement of a minor by a public officer pursuant to law.

Detention/Shelter Care Monitoring: An on-call 24 hour a day operation in which police must call an Intake Officer in order to place a juvenile into a detention facility or shelter. The Intake Officer approves or disapproves the request based upon criteria outlined in the Intake Manual.

Discretion: Power or act allowing some leeway for action. "Discretionary action" is action not mandated or compelled by some rule, order or guideline.

Disposition: The order of a juvenile court determining what is to be done with a minor already adjudged to be within the court's jurisdiction (at an adjudicatory hearing). Analogues to the sentence in a criminal case.

Diversion: The procedure by which complaints are diverted from formal processing.

Docket: Schedule of cases to be heard by a court.

Due Process: The constitutionally guaranteed right of persons to be treated by the law with fundamental fairness. In juvenile delinquency proceedings, these include the right to counsel, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to refuse to give self-incriminating testimony, and the right to have allegations of conduct that would be criminal if committed by an adult to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Evidence: Any proof presented at trail via witnesses, writings, objects, etc.

Exhibit: Documents, objects, writings, etc., which can be placed in evidence under certain conditions.

Ex-Parte: It is an application made on behalf of one party without notice to any person adversely interested.

Family Counseling: A systems approach based therapeutic session usually six sessions in length.

Family Crisis: An on-call operation in which a family experiencing stress because of the "acting out" of a child is seen by a Family Therapist on a immediate basis, at the Intake Service. The goals are to avoid the placement of youth into a detention setting and to provide immediate therapeutic intervention and support.

Foster Care: A form of temporary substitute care, usually in a home licensed by a public agency, for children whose welfare requires that they be removed from their own homes.

Grand Jury: A jury impaneled to investigate criminal matters that pertain to the State when asked to do so by the Attorney General.

Group Therapy: A counseling technique for truants, runaways, etc., utilizing group dynamics and peer inputs to effectuate change. Conducted by an Intake Service staff member.

Guardian Ad Litem: A person appointed by the court to safeguard the rights of persons otherwise incapable of handling their own interests.

Guilty: Justly liable or deserving of a penalty.

Indictment: A formal written statement by a grand jury charging a person with an offense, prepared by a prosecuting authority.

Innocent: Free from legal guilt or fault.


  • a) The power of a particular court to hear cases involving certain categories of persons or allegations.
  • b) A geographical area subject to a particular law or court.

Litigation: A term used to describe a lawsuit. "action," "suit" or "lawsuit.")

Motion: Formal request that the judge in a trial or hearing take some action.

Parole: A conditional release form prison, granted by the State Board of Pardons and Parole. Parole allows the person to complete a prison term outside prison walls.

Party: Person concerned with or actively taking part in a proceeding e.g. in a child dependency hearing (the biological parents, the child, the State Department of Child Welfare, the State).

Petition: A civil pleading filed to initiate a matter in juvenile court, setting forth the alleged grounds for the court to take jurisdiction of the case and asking the court to do so and intervene.

Petit Jury: A jury, impaneled to hear a civil or criminal proceeding in court.

Plaintiff: Person or agency who files a complaint or brings an action in court.

Plea: Formal response, as to guilt or innocence, by a defendant to criminal charges.

Precedent: A body of prior court decisions relied upon in deciding a similar legal problem occurring later.

Privileged Communications: Confidential communications to certain persons that are protected by law against forced disclosure. Privileged communications cannot be disclosed in court over the objection of the holder of the privilege. (The holder of the privilege is usually the patient, client or other person receiving care, rather than the

Communications between lawyer and client, physician and patient, psychotherapist and patient, priest, minister or rabbi and penitent are typically privileged. Some social workers are also covered by privilege in some states, but the law varies widely from state to state as to the classes of persons to whom the communications are privileged, who may invoke the privilege, and similar matters. Generally, the privilege only protects the communication from disclosure in court or in connection with a court case.

Probation: A conditional suspension of imposition of the court's sentence. If terms of probation are completed successfully, sentence is not imposed. If terms of probation are violated, probation may be revoked and the sentence imposed.

Public Defender: A lawyer, usually holding public office, whose duty is to defend accused persons unable to pay for legal assistance.

Restitution: A making good of or giving an equivalent for some injury.

Sentence: Punishment imposed on one found guilty.

Standard of Proof: There are varying requirements of proof in different kinds of judicial proceedings. In criminal and delinquency cases, the offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In neglect and dependency proceedings, and in civil cases generally, the standard of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence, a significantly lower standard, which requires that the judge believe that it is more likely than not, on the evidence presented, that neglect occurred. In some states, the standard of proof in persons in Need of Supervision cases and in abuse and neglect proceedings is by clear and convincing evidence, a standard more stringent than preponderance of the evidence and less demanding than beyond a reasonable doubt.

Statute: A law enacted by a state legislature or the U.S. Congress.

Subpoena: A legal document, usually issued by a court clerk, requiring that the person named in the subpoena appear on a stated date and time at a specified court to give testimony in a case. A subpoena must be served personally on the person named; this is usually done by law enforcement officer, probation officer, child protective services worker, or process server. Failure to obey a subpoena is punishable as contempt of court

Suit (Lawsuit): A case in a civil court involving a claim of one or more parties against one or more other parties.


  • a) A legal document, issued by a court clerk or other court officer, notifying the named person that a lawsuit or legal case has been filed against or involves him or her, notifying such person of any dates set for hearing and deadlines for responding to the complaint or petition. The purpose of a summons is simply to notify the person concerned; it does not require court attendance by any person.
  • b) In some states, a citation issued by a law enforcement officer for a traffic violation or other minor offense is known as a summons. Citations require the person to whom they are issued to appear in court.

Testimony: A statement or declaration made to establish a fact or facts and given under oath.

Trial Venue: The county where a case is tried.

Vicinage: A neighboring or surrounding district.

Waiver: The understanding and voluntary relinquishment of a known right, such as the right to remain silent during police questioning.

Warrant: A notification to law enforcement that a defendant should be arrested when found.

Ward: A minor who is under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for a delinquent act or status offense. A person who has a legally appointed guardian is the ward of that guardian.

Witness: One who has testified to what he or she has seen, heard or observed.

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