A Legal Glossary for Non-Attorneys

A Legal Glossary for Non-attorneys

It’s an unfortunate reality that the legal world is full of jargon that (at first glance) makes the law seem much more complicated than it really is.  However, the good news is that once you understand many of the legal terms used in court proceedings (and read our other posts), you will see that things are not nearly so complex as they seem.

The following glossary contains some of the most common legal terms related to filing and answering a civil lawsuit.  The terms are organized in chronological, rather than alphabetical order.  They are listed in the order that you are likely to encounter them in, if you happen to get involved in the beginning stages of a lawsuit.

Keep in mind that some states may use different terms than those listed below, but these will be applicable to the vast majority of U.S. legal jurisdictions.


PARTY:  A plaintiff or defendant in a civil case.

PLAINTIFF:  A person who files a civil lawsuit against a defendant.

DEFENDANT:  A person who has been accused of wrongdoing in civil court in the form of a complaint being filed against them.

PRO SE:  Latin phrase meaning, “for oneself”.  It refers to any plaintiff or defendant that does not have an attorney.  They are referred to as a pro se litigant or proceeding pro se.

CONTRACT LAW:  One of two broad categories of civil lawsuits.  All legal issues dealing with any written or oral agreement will be based on contract law.

CONTRACT:  Any agreement (oral or written), in which an offer has been made by one party, accepted by another, and some consideration has been given (such as money, or performance of a specific task).  Breach of contract is one of the most commonly filed civil claims.

TORT LAW:  The other broad category of civil lawsuits that basically includes any type of wrongful act committed by another (other than breach of contract cases), such as battery or negligence.

STATUTES:  The codified laws of a state.  The official name of these statutes will vary from state to state.

RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE:  The basic rules of civil court proceedings.  Each state will have their own set of civil procedure rules (the official name of these rules will vary from state to state).

PLEADING (noun):  Any formal document that is filed with the court in a civil case.


COMPLAINT:  The initial document filed by a plaintiff that begins a civil lawsuit (called a ‘petition’ in Texas courts).  It is a statement of how the plaintiff has been wronged by the defendant, why they should be compensated, and how much compensation they believe is warranted.  It includes one or more claims for relief and alleges how each element of that claim has been satisfied.

SUMMONS:  A command to appear and defend oneself in a civil lawsuit (called a ‘citation’ in Texas courts).  Served with a complaint.  Failure to appear can result in a default judgment being entered against the defendant.

CLAIM FOR RELIEF:  A specific cause of action alleged in a complaint, such as a claim of negligence, racial discrimination, or breach of contract.

ELEMENT:  A specific aspect of a claim that must be properly alleged (and ultimately proven) to prevail on a claim for relief.  A claim will normally have several elements, each of which must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.

SERVICE:  The term used to refer to specific notice that pleadings have been received by an opposing party.

PROCESS SERVER:  A person who is hired by a party to deliver legal documents to persons in accordance with the rules of civil procedure.

CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE:  A document filed with the court (signed by the process server) showing that service has been completed in accordance with the rules of civil procedure.


ANSWER:  The formal reply to a complaint, filed by the defendant.  An answer will usually deny the claims made in the complaint and/or will otherwise assert how the plaintiff is not entitled to any of the relief sought.

AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE:  A type of defense asserted in a defendant’s answer in which, even if the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint are true, the plaintiff is still not entitled to relief.  For example, if the allegations in the complaint are true, but the statute of limitations has expired, the defendant would assert the affirmative defense of failure to bring a claim within the statutory period.

COUNTERCLAIM:  A claim made by a defendant against the plaintiff.  By filing a counterclaim, a defendant is counter-suing the plaintiff, usually for issues related to those brought up in the complaint.  The plaintiff will then have to file an answer of his own to respond to the counterclaims.

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS:  A period set by law in which a claim for relief must be filed.  For example, if the statute of limitations on a personal injury (negligence) case is two years, the plaintiff would need to file a claim for negligence within two years of the date they discovered the injury.

As you can see, the basic legal concepts related to filing a complaint or an answer are not difficult to grasp.  With a little study and the right forms, anyone can represent themselves in court and preserve their legal rights!

Currently, lawsuitforms.org offers form packets and instructions for filing a complaint, answer, and request for production of documents in the following states: CaliforniaFloridaGeorgiaIllinoisNew YorkNorth CarolinaOhioOregonPennsylvania, and Texas!  More states will be added in the future, so check back regularly if you need forms for another state.