Guide to legal terminology

Looking for the right words to use in a keyword search for legal information? This guide can help you understand legal language to get more on-point results when helping patrons with legal issues. You’ll find definitions for common legal terms as well as a ‘legal translation’ section putting ‘layman’s terms’ phrases into proper legal terms. If the term you are looking for isn’t listed here or you want a more substantial list of legal terms, you can find links to other online legal glossaries below.

Legal resources are described in terms of primary vs. secondary materials.

Primary materials:

Legislation and case law. These are the building blocks of our laws. General parameters are set with legislation (statues and regulations), and the way judges interpret and apply legislation in their decision-making builds the body of case law known as common law.

Secondary materials:

Referred to as ‘commentary’, meaning text books, articles or other online sources that describe and contextualize primary law to help people interpret and understand it.

Legislation:

Acts or Statues (equivalent terms) and Regulations made pursuant to acts. Example: Court Rules Act, R.S.B.C.  1996, c. 80 (Provincial Statute) and Supreme Court Family Rules, BC Reg 169/2009 (Regulation made pursuant to Provincial Act).

Legislation is drafted at the Federal, Provincial and Municipal level, with each level having jurisdiction over different areas of law. Areas of law that are determined federally include Criminal, Banking or Immigration Law. Laws that are determined provincially include Wills & Estates or Tenancy laws. Municipalities make local laws for towns and cities called bylaws, often derived from provincial laws - for example, municipal laws requiring bike helmets as set out in BC’s  Motor Vehicle Act, RSBC 1996, c. 318, s. 124 (1) (w) to (z).

All laws are freely accessibly online:

Case Law:

Written judgments from the courts, released by judges at all levels of court. Previous cases are known as precedents, to which judges will refer when making subsequent decisions in cases with similar facts. These judgments are collectively known as case law or common law. Case law can be searched online through databases such as CanLII. For a fuller explanation of the legal principles the system of Common Law is based upon such as stare decisis or binding authority, see the JP Boyd on Family Law Wikibook’s discussion of common law or the Government of Canada’s website for information on where the Canadian legal system comes from

Action:

A court case is called an action. It can also be referred to as a matter.

Adjournment:

Delaying a case in the courts. This only delays the case– it will still be heard on another day. See stay of proceedings and default judgment.

Default judgment:

A type of judgment found when one party does not appear at court or file a response within the mandated time limit. This means that the judge will make a decision based only on what is before them, namely documents from the claimant, assuming that the respondent is in agreement with these documents.

Hearing:

When both parties appear in front of a judge; also called an appearance.

Judgment:

Delivered by a judge after the conclusion of a court case, also called reasons for judgment, decisions, and rulings. All parties must abide by court judgments. Written judgements can be found on databases such as CanLII, but in order to see judgments that are either given orally or those from jury trials, you must request court transcripts (which are not freely accessible).

Mediation:

An option to resolve a legal dispute without going to court. Check out Mediate BC for more information.

Party/parties:

People involved in a court case are called parties. The parties are usually the claimant/petitioner (the one who starts the court case) and the respondent (the one the case is started against who ‘responds’ to the documents the claimant files). If a party is appealing a previous court decision, they are called an appellant.

Precedent:

A term with two distinct meanings.

  1. A template or a completed example of a legal document such as a contract or a court form. Often when a patron is seeking this kind of precedent, they are looking for completed examples of court forms they can use as a guide to complete their own forms. For help with this, see our guide on Court Forms [insert link to page].
  2. A court decision that has binding authority, i.e. case law. See also Precedent under Legal Translations.
Relief:

When you go to court to ask the judge for something, you are asking the court to give you an order that the other party has to abide by. The thing you are asking for is called relief. It can be monetary, but doesn’t always have to be.

Self-represented litigant (SRLs):

Individuals going to court who do not have a lawyer and are representing themselves. This means that they need to prepare and file their own court documents, learn about the court system, do their own legal research, find the laws that apply to their case, etc.

Stay of proceedings:

Court mandated delay requested by a party, halting the case so something necessary can happen. This is different than adjournment and can be temporary or permanent.

Unreported decision:

A written judgment that is not released to a court reporter and is therefore not available in case law databases. Some can be found using CLBC’s Unreported Decision Index. For other unreported decisions, you will need to contact the court registry the case was heard at.

Affidavit:

A sworn or affirmed statement of facts confirmed to be true by an individual. The signature of the person swearing the affidavit must be witnessed and signed by a commissioner, such as a lawyer or notary public. Documents being filed at court can be sworn at the court registry where they are being filed. 

Bill of costs:

This is an account of charges given by a lawyer to a client. A client can then ‘tax the bill’, which means to have the bill examined and possibly reduced.

Pleadings:

Court documents prepared and served by each party stating all facts and details of their case. Can include BC court forms like Notice of Claim, Response to Claim, Counterclaim, and Reply to Counterclaim.

Court Rules:

Rules that mandate procedures within a court. Each court level has its own set of rules, some specific to areas of law. These are a good place to look for procedural information about preparing, filing and proceeding with a court matter and are available freely online.

See also: http://www.smallclaimsbc.ca/

Service:

The procedure by which someone involved in a court matter gives court documents to the other party. There are two types of service: personal and ordinary. Court rules specify which type of service must be used with which court documents.

  • Address of service:
    • The address given by the party to receive their court documents at. This can be a mailing address, email address, and/or fax number.                
  • Personal service:
    • When someone personally hands documents to the other party. Note: The person filing the court documents can’t do this themselves – it needs to be another adult, such as a friend, relative, or process server.
  • Ordinary service:
    • When the document can be delivered by mail, fax, or email to the address of service provided by the person receiving it. Note: to deliver by fax or email, these addresses of service must have been provided by the recipient.
  • Alternative service:
    • when the court gives permission to serve documents in a way other than personal service or ordinary service. Usually only permitted when the party being served either can’t be found or is avoiding accepting documents; also called substituted service.
Limitation period:

How long someone has after an event occurred (or after discovery of an event) to start a court action. This is a particularly complex legal topic; for more information see Courthouse Libraries’ Guide to the Limitation Act or the Law Society’s Limitations and Deadlines

Access:

This term refers to time that the child spends with the parent they don’t usually live with. Other people can apply to the courts to have access to the child – this includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others. Under the new Divorce Act for parents who are/were married spouses, the term access will be replaced with parenting time; unmarried spouses will have contact. Note: parenting time includes the ability to make day-to-day decisions while the child is with them.

Common-law spouse:

This term is used to refer to a marriage-like relationship that has lasted a certain amount of time. Legislation in BC doesn’t use this term; the term used is unmarried spouses.

Consent order:

This is a type of court order that both parties agree to. The parties are asking the court to recognize the order but the judge doesn’t need to issue any judgments.

Contact:

A term used in BC legislation to refer to time that non-guardians spend with a child. People other than guardians can apply to the courts for contact with the child, including grandparents.

Enforce:

This term refers to the steps taken to make a party follow a court order or agreement.

Final order:

A permanent order made by the court after a trial is finished or settlement reached. Although the order is permanent and must be abided by, parties can apply to change or vary the order if circumstances change. 

Interim order:

A temporary court order made before the resolution of a trial. 

Uncontested or undefended divorce:

A divorce that is agreed to by both parties. Spouses agree on all relevant family law issues, like support payments, parenting times, etc. This type of divorce does not need to go to court and can be completed by the spouses, either filing together or one spouse filing the court forms. See Legal Aid BC’s guide for more information: https://familylaw.lss.bc.ca/separation-divorce/getting-a-divorce/do-your-own-uncontested-divorce

Committee:

(Pronounced caw-mi-tay or caw-mi-tee, with emphasis on the end of the word) A person appointed by the court to manage the affairs of someone unable to do so themselves. A committee may be appointed to take care of legal matters, finances, property, and may be the individual’s guardian.

Executor of estate/administrator of estate:

The person in charge of the estate and dispersing it to the beneficiaries of the will or the heirs. If there is a will, then usually someone has been appointed the executor of the will. If there is no will, then someone can apply to be the administrator of the estate and take on similar duties as the executor would have done.

Grant of administration with will annexed:

This refers to when a deceased person made a will and appointed an executor, but the executor is unable to act or is a minor. A person can then apply to the court for the grant of administration with will annexed.

Grant of administration without will annexed:

when the deceased person had no will and therefore did not appoint an executor, someone can apply to be the administrator of their estate by getting a grant of administration without will annexed.

Grant of probate:

When the court appoints a person to take care of the deceased person’s estate and disperse it to the beneficiaries. If there is a will, it is called a grant of probate. If there is no will, it is called a grant of administration

Intestate:

When someone dies without a will, they are said to have died intestate. This means in order for the estate to be dispersed, someone would need to apply for the grant of administration without will annexed.

Representation agreement:

A type of agreement that appoints an adult to make decisions on an individual’s behalf. Agreements can authorize a person to make personal care, health-care, financial, and legal decisions. Representation agreements include power of attorney and advance directives.

Undue influence:

This refers to the situation when a person forces or coerces another person to make a will/change a will against that person’s wishes.

Since many of us learn what we know about the court system from American television, there are some commonly used but misleading phrases or terms that people use to ask for information they need. This section is meant give you accurate legal terms to perform searches and to clarify some common misconceptions.

Common law:

A legal system in which the courts follow the precedents set by previous court decisions. This system is used throughout Canada except in Quebec.

Defamation:

Publication of anything that negatively affects the name or reputation of an individual and brings them into disrepute. There are two types of defamation:

Libel:

A type of defamation in printed or other permanent form.

Slander:

A type of defamation that is spoken, not printed.

Lawsuit:

A court case where one party sues another for relief. This is colloquially known as a lawsuit, but better search terms would be case or action.

Living will:

Advance directives and substitute decision-making arrangements in case of incapacity later in life. In BC, this is called a Representation Agreement.

Personal planning vs. estate planning:

There are two types of legal planning available to adults in BC:

  • Personal planning:
    •  This refers to making arrangements while someone is alive to take care of financial, health, and legal decisions in case the person is unable to make their own decisions due to illness, injury, or disability. This includes representation agreements.
  • Estate planning:
    • This refers to making arrangements for after a person’s death, including making a will, funeral arrangements, and appointing an executor. Although related, this is not the same as seeking a grant of probate or administration for an estate as the estate planning takes place before a person’s death.
Precedent setting case:

Cases that are colloquially known as “precedent setting” are called Landmark or Leading cases. These are cases that apply the law in a new and or different way. An example would be the 2015 Landmark decision Carter v Carter giving Canadians the right to physician assisted suicide.

Restraining order:

In BC the accurate term for a restraining order is a protection order. There are two types of protection orders.

Peace Bond:

These orders are made by police to protect an individual from any other individual. To apply for a peace bond, make a report to the police. These orders last up to one year but can be applied for again. For more info on applying: https://familylaw.lss.bc.ca/abuse-family-violence/protecting-yourself-your-family/peace-bonds-and-family-law-protection-orders

If you’re looking for a fuller list of legal terms, check out some of these freely available online legal glossaries: