The five most used legal terms in English

The English legal system is a common law system mainly based on decisions from previous cases. This means that it is different from that of many other countries, which are based on specific legal codes. However, English is increasingly the language of international law and contracts, just as it is of business.

This is why students of many nationalities attend the Legal English 20-30 course.

Legal English can frighten people, including many native speakers. They think it is too difficult and complicated. But common legal terms are widely used in every day English, in business and the newspapers. Law is very much part of everybody’s life and so is the language which explains it. Following are five of the most frequent legal terms, which most people would not need a legal English dictionary to explain:

To sue somebody for damages

This means to take somebody to a civil court because of something they have done or not done you are not happy with. Examples of this would be not paying back a loan or publicly saying or writing something negative about you. Damages are the financial compensation you receive if you win. People sometimes confuse this with the damage a hurricane or smoking causes. But we cannot count that sort of damage so we never use it with an ‘s’. When we use it as a noun with an ‘s’, we are always talking about the money awarded by a judge when somebody’s suit, claim or action is successful.

Solicitor and Barrister

The English legal system has two types of lawyers. You would use a solicitor to help you buy a house, set up a company or if you were arrested. If the matter needs to go to court, the solicitor will get you a barrister. Barristers are advocates who wear old-fashioned wigs and gowns and have the right to speak for you in court. They are also frequently used for expert advice. There are more solicitors than barristers as it is easier to become a solicitor. It is also safer being a solicitor as they are usually employees who receive a salary. Barristers are self-employed and work for fees. For the best barristers, who specialise in divorce or commercial cases, these fees can be very high, as much as a million pounds a year. Almost all judges were barristers before. It is very rare for a solicitor to become a judge

To reach a verdict

In a civil court the judge decides who has the better case. But in a criminal court the jury decides if the defendant is innocent or guilty. This decision is called the verdict. The jury is composed of twelve adults selected from the public. More or less anyone can be chosen. Sometimes they all have to agree (unanimous verdict). At others a majority verdict is accepted. This depends on the judge, who has a neutral role like that of a referee at a football match, making sure the law is properly observed and explained to the jury.

The defendant

This term is used in both civil and criminal law. In civil law it describes the person who is sued, for example the person who is said not to have repaid a loan. In criminal law it describes the person who is said to have committed the crime. Under English law the defendant in a criminal case has the right to defend him or herself and so does not need a lawyer. Sometimes this can work to the defendant’s advantage as they might receive help from the judge and sympathy from the jury.

Breach of Contract

This very common legal English term means to break a contract by not following the conditions you agreed to when making it. You can breach a contract or be in breach of contract. An employer would be in breach if they did not pay a contracted employee for work he or she had done. An employee would be in breach if they left a job without working the period they have agreed to do after giving notice, that is telling their boss they are leaving. You can breach other things apart from contract such as copyright or human rights. But usually other words are used for different areas: infringe for copyright; violate for human rights. You can check this out using a legal English dictionary, or Google if you want to see which term is used most frequently.

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Please note that our Legal English courses are language courses for practising lawyers and law students, we do not teach Law.

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