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What are some common legal terms I should know?

Answer: A document filed by the defendant with the court responding to the plaintiff’s complaint.[1]

Civil Action: A lawsuit filed with a court to demand a legal solution to a private dispute.[2]

Complaint: The first document filed by the plaintiff in a case. It describes what the plaintiff claims the defendant did wrong that caused the plaintiff some harm.

Court Docket: An official court record of what has happened in a legal case.  The docket is a public record and can often be viewed online from the court’s website.[3]

Default Judgment: A judgment granted by the court for failure to file a pleading by a specific deadline or a failure to appear in court when required.[4]

Defendant: The person being sued in the lawsuit and who the plaintiff claims did something wrong.

Magistrate: A court official appointed by a judge with authority to administer and enforce the law in a case.[5]

Motion: A written request asking the court to take some form of action (for example, to dismiss a complaint).[6]

Plaintiff: The person or company who files the lawsuit with the court.

Pleadings: Written documents filed by the plaintiff or defendant that give information to the court about the dispute.[7]

Poverty Affidavit: A written, sworn statement that you have a low income and do not have enough money to pay court filing fees.[8]

Pro Se: A person who does not have an attorney representing them in their case and who appears in court by himself or herself.[9]

Summons: A court order requiring a person to appear or respond in writing to the complaint. Failure to appear in a civil case can result in a default judgment; failure to appear in a criminal case can result in being arrested.[10]


[1] at page 1.

[2] at page 3.

[3] at page 7.


[7] at page 18.


[9] "Pro Se." West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. 2008. The Gale Group 22 Jul. 2014

This article was written by Legal Aid Paralegal Kristen Simpson and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!

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