Legal terms

Glossary

Acquittal:

a verdict resulting in the defendant(s) being found not guilty of a criminal offence.

Admissibility:

the quality or character of evidence allowed in legal proceedings as determined by a judge based on rules of evidence; to be admissible, evidence must be relevant to the case but may not be obtained inappropriately, consist of hearsay or be deemed unreliable, for example.

Adversarial system:

where two advocates represent their parties’ case or position, present evidence and question witnesses before an impartial finder of facts (jury or judge), who attempts to determine the truth and pass judgment accordingly.

Affirmation:

solemnly promising to tell the truth when giving evidence; an alternative to swearing an oath when the person giving evidence does not wish to.

Appeal:

formally requesting a court to overturn a lower court’s decision.

Arraignment:

the formal process of putting charges to the defendant in the Crown Court which consists of three parts: (1) the clerk of the court asking the defendant(s) to stand, stating his names (2) putting the charges to him by reading from the indictment and (3) asking him whether he pleads guilty or not guilty.

Barrister:

a type of lawyer who is trained to represent people and argue cases at any level of jurisprudence.

Chain of custody:

the chronological documentation or paper trail that records the sequence of control/transfer/analysis/disposition of physical or electronic evidence; often used to demonstrate the validity of an item’s provenance for a court of law.

Conviction:

a verdict resulting in the defendant(s) being found guilty of a criminal offence.

Cross examination:

questioning of a witness by a party other than the party who called the witness.

Crown Court:

a level of jurisprudence where cases against people accused of serious crimes are tried by a jury of 12 people; more severe sentences may be imposed upon those found guilty than in Magistrates’ Court.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS):

the organisation that prosecutes criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales in both the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts.

Defendant:

a person who is formally accused in court of committing a crime.

Defending Counsel:

a qualified lawyer who defends someone accused of a crime in a court of law.

Expert witness:

an individual permitted to offer an opinion in a court to aid the finder of facts within the scope of their proffered expertise, (as opposed to a lay witness who is expected to testify only to factual observations or perceptions). Their duty to the court to maintain professional objectivity and impartial honesty should override any obligation to the party who called or questions the witness.

Either-way offence:

a type of criminal offence which may be tried either in the Magistrates’ Court (summarily, heard by a Magistrate alone) or in the Crown Court (by indictment, heard by judge and jury). The Magistrate will decide the approach, depending on severity and complexity. For example, burglary or drugs offences may be tried upon indictment, whereas a less serious offence, such as a traffic violation, might be dealt with by a Magistrate, although the defendant will also be given the choice to be tried upon indictment in the latter case.

Forensic science:

the application of scientific methods and techniques to matters under investigation by a court of law.

Indictable-only offence:

a type of criminal offence considered serious, which will be sent for trial from the Magistrates’ Court up to the Crown Court, such as murder, rape or robbery.

Indictment:

the document containing the formal charges against a defendant – a trial in the Crown Court cannot start without this.

Inquisitorial system:

a legal system where the court or a part of the court is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case, eg an examining judge may question witnesses or suspects or order additional searches for information either exculpatory or inculpatory.

Judge:

in the Magistrates’ Court a judge (or magistrate) presides over court proceedings and hears all witnesses and evidence presented by the parties of the case, assesses the credibility and arguments of the parties and then issues a ruling on the matter at hand, based on his or her interpretation of the law and his or her own personal judgment. In the Crown Court, the judge makes sure that the trial is fair and the law is followed, while the jury ultimately determines the guilt of the defendant. Judges in both courts pass sentence if the defendant is found guilty.

Jury:

a sworn body of people in court who listen to the evidence in a trial in order to make an impartial decision (verdict) regarding the guilt of the defendant (in a criminal case).

government funding that can help people meet the costs of legal services they require, if they are eligible to receive it. It is also used to support legal assistance being provided at police stations where someone is arrested.

Magistrates’ Court:

level of jurisprudence below the Crown Court where cases are heard by judges or magistrates rather than juries; all criminal cases start here, where they may be heard or sent up to the Crown Court based on severity of the alleged crime.

Magna Carta:

Latin for great charter, signed by King John in 1215, it promised the protection of rights and access to justice. Claimed as not only the basis for the British and subsequently American legal systems, but the foundation to civil liberties and starting point for human rights.

Solicitor:

a type of lawyer who is trained to give advice and prepare cases at any level of jurisprudence; they can represent people in magistrates court only.

Summary offence:

a type of criminal offence considered less severe which will be tried in a Magistrates’ Court, such as minor criminal damage, drunk and disorderly, most motoring offences.

Witness:

a person who gives evidence, either by way of a written statement or orally, in court.

Sources:

<justice.gov.uk/courts/procedure-rules/criminal/docs/2015/crim-proc-rules-2015-glossary.pdf/> <cps.gov.uk/publication/glossary> <plainenglish.co.uk/files/legalguide.pdf>

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