Confusing Legal Terms in the Courthouse

Understanding the details of your family law or estate planning legal case can be tough enough, let alone keeping up with courthouse terms.

Here is an explanation of some confusing legal terms you might encounter in the courthouse regarding the parts of a legal case, what you might be called, what documents you might encounter, what the judge or your lawyers might say, and the places you might go.

Confusing Terms: What you might be called

Courts use legal terms when referring to the central individuals involved in a lawsuit. Among these are party, petitioner and respondent.

Party: Legal term for a person, usually one who has some legal interest in a case. If one person initiates legal action against another, they both become parties to the case.

Petitioner: The person who is filing a lawsuit with the court is known as the petitioner. The petitioner files the initial paperwork that begins court proceedings.

Respondent: The respondent is the person whom a lawsuit is filed against. In the case of divorce proceedings, even if both parties agree to the action, one person will be the petitioner and the other will be the respondent throughout the case.

Confusing Terms: Documents you might encounter

The legal process involves plenty of paperwork, and you’ll likely have to deal with some basic documents.

Petition: A petition is a document that a person files with the court to begin a lawsuit. It describes the petitioner’s current situation and asks the court to intervene to provide legal relief.

Appearance: This term may be especially confusing. In legal lingo, an appearance has nothing to do with physically showing up anywhere. An appearance is a document filed by a person who has been notified they’re being sued. It is their response to the court, putting on file their desire to be heard by the Court.  In addition to an appearance, you are required to Answer the Petition which is your response to each of the allegations set forth therein.

Court Order: To adjudicate cases properly, judges sometimes require parties in a case to do something, such as appear at a hearing, or refrain from doing something, such as not contact the other party. These instructions come in the form of court orders, which are provided to all relevant parties and kept in the court’s case file.

Confusing Terms: What judges and lawyers might say

Hearings could feel like they buzz by in a blur, with lawyers and the judge tossing legal terms back and forth. You may hear a couple of these basic terms you should know.

Docket Number: Every case is assigned a court docket number that allows it to be organized and identified by the court, lawyers, and all relevant parties. People involved in a lawsuit should know how to find their docket number.

Motion: When a party in a lawsuit or their lawyer makes a written or oral request to the judge, their action is called a motion.

Continuance: Cases often require a number of hearings before being settled. A continuance is when the judge sets a future date to continue hearing the case.

Confusing Terms: Places you might go

Two of these terms help you understand where your case fits into the larger judicial system, and one tells you where you need to be for an important hearing.

Jurisdiction: When filing a case, you’ll do so in the appropriate court having  jurisdiction. Jurisdiction relates to a particular court’s legal right to hear and decide a case. Often, jurisdiction over your case will fall to the court that represents the county in which you live.

Circuit Court: Illinois’ judicial system is organized into 24 sections called judicial circuits, which each represent a geographic area. While the court’s jurisdiction is important, during a lawsuit you’ll pay more attention to the physical courthouse where you’ll need to report for hearings.

Prove-Up: When two people negotiate their own terms of a divorce, the final step in the legal dissolution of their marriage involves an appearance before the judge known as a prove-up. Depending on the case, one or both parties testify to the judge about their divorce settlement.

Confusing Terms: Parts of a legal case

As a lawsuit moves along, you’ll learn new phrases. Here are some terms you may encounter as either a petitioner or responder.

Service: Once a case is filed, the person being sued receives a copy of the lawsuit, often delivered to them by the county sheriff’s office. It’s delivered in this way to ensure the person has received it, and then a judge can begin considering the case.

Summons: Within the legal service by the sheriff’s office, the person being sued will receive a summons. The defendant must file an appearance and send the court his or her reply to the lawsuit, known as an answer.

Hearing: A hearing is an opportunity and obligation to stand before the judge assigned to your case. Depending on its complexity, your case may require a few or several hearings. During this formal court proceeding, you may be required to answer questions, and other witnesses may be called. Along with your attorney, you’ll also have the chance to advocate for your best interest through your testimony if necessary.

Discovery: During the discovery phase of a lawsuit, both parties exchange relevant documents and evidence pertaining to the case. The discovery phase may also involve the collection of depositions and interrogatories.

Depositions and Interrogatories: To gather information, people may be required by the court to answer questions related to the case. This may come in the form of interrogatories, which involve written questions and answers, or depositions, which are oral question-and-response sessions.

Judgment: The final legal decision about a case filed with the court is the judgment. Even if both parties are ready to settle their case, it is only legally complete once there is a judgment. 

We’re Here to Help

If you have family law or estate planning questions, our caring team would be honored to assist you. Please call Sterk Family Law Group, P.C. or contact us to speak with one of our caring legal team members or to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.

Other Confusing Legal Terms Explained

Check out some of our other posts to get clarification on other confusing legal terms:


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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