If you’ve ever had to read a legal document or a contract, you know exactly how confusing legal terms can be. Professionals of the law spend years studying to understand and use these terms in criminal cases. 

Our clients often have very little experience with these terms. In continuation of our Legal Jargon series, we hope to make some of the more common terms heard in court cases less frightening and more understandable. 

Plaintiff vs Defendant 

Two legal terms that are often used in almost all civil court cases are plaintiff and defendant. You may wonder who you are and what it means broadly. 

A plaintiff is a person or entity that files a lawsuit. A defendant is a person (or persons) who is being sued. These terms are mostly seen in civil court. In criminal cases, the plaintiff is often identified as “The People,” which is the State on behalf of the victim. These two groups are the main players in a court hearing. 

Lady Justice


An affidavit is a written statement by a witness or someone involved in a court case. The person making the statement is doing so under an oath that they are telling the truth. This affidavit can then be used as evidence either by the prosecution or the defense. Failure to tell the truth on an affidavit can result in a penalty such as a fine, community service, and even jail time.


Once a case has been decided by a magistrate (judge) or a jury of your peers, an appeal can be made to a higher court if you and your lawyers feel the proper decision was not made. 

The goal of an appeal is to reverse the decision of the lower court. 


In a civil case, a plaintiff may ask the court for damages (or money to be paid) if the plaintiff wins the court case. Damages can be broken down into two types – compensatory or punitive. Compensatory damage payments are for loss or injury, while punitive damages are meant to punish and deter future misconduct. 


Evidence is any legal proof that supports one side or the other in a court case. For instance, evidence could be a witness testimony, paperwork, records, an exhibit, trace evidence, forensic evidence, and many more. The American Bar Association explains in depth the difference in the types of evidence such as direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. 


A mistrial means that the trial was deemed invalid and must be retried at another time. This often occurs for a couple of reasons. In some cases, a jury is unable to reach a verdict and there must be a new trial with a new jury. In other cases, there is a serious procedural error or misconduct that would result in an unfair trial, and the judge adjourns the case without a decision on the merits and awards a new trial. 


Parole is a form of early release of a prison inmate where the prisoner agrees to abide by certain behavioral conditions, including checking in with their designated parole officers, staying in a certain geographical area, abstaining from drug and alcohol use, or else they may be rearrested and returned to prison.

Navigating the court system can be overwhelming, but understanding the terms you will hear with your legal counsel and in the courtroom will help you better understand the proceedings and your role in them.