Law is dry, circuitous, and difficult to understand, ¬†especially for those without a background in legal studies. While the average person can’t reasonably be expected to know the details about every aspect of the law, there are some common terms that everyone should have a passing familiarity with. ¬†


Initial Pleadings

While civil and criminal court cases vary greatly in many ways, they all begin with the initial pleadings that inform the court of the purpose for the legal action. These pleadings come in the form of a Petition, Complaint, or Motion. Each pleading identifies the parties involved, the reason for the action, and the resolution sought by the plaintiff.



The discovery phase of a case allows for either side to question the opponent about details relevant to the case. They may submit written questions, known as interrogatories, or question the opponent in person, during a deposition. Parties can also be compelled to produce documents and submit them for review.


Compensatory Damages

This term refers to money awarded to a plaintiff in a case to cover costs incurred by the action or inaction of the defendant. Compensatory damages may cover expenses incurred for medical bills, property damage, loss of work, pain and suffering, and long-term therapy.


Punitive Damages

Money may also be awarded as a means of punishing a defendant, especially where it has been shown that the defendant acted with malice in causing the injuries. Additionally, a jury may award punitive damages to deter others from acting in a similar manner. Typically, punitive damages are substantial enough to cause a burden for the defendant.



This term covers the majority of our laws, because it refers to an act that is either illegal or commonly known to be wrongful and causes injury to another. A tort can be committed unintentionally or with the purpose of causing the harm. Intentional torts can usually be prosecuted as crimes.


Procedural Law

This area of law deals with the administration or procedures involved in trying a case, either criminal or civil. It deals with such things as the rights of the accused, the preservation of evidence, and the practice of law.


The legal system has hundreds of terms specific to the practice of law and even common terms take on new meaning in a courtroom. While it takes years to obtain a comprehensive understanding of legal terminology, everyone should be familiar with the most basic terms. By educating yourself about the most basic legal terms and concepts, you’ll have a better understanding of the law, when you are faced with a legal situation of your own.