The Valley Law Group: Legal Glossary of Terms

In the practice of law, words matter.

As you prepare for a divorce, child custody dispute, or another legal matter, it is important to have a basic understanding of general legal terms.

The Valley Law Group is dedicated to demystifying the family court process so our clients have a better awareness of the practical implications of the advice we provide.

This legal term glossary can be your resource whether you want Arizona legal terms defined, family law terms defined, or you’re curious about what you’ll need to know for your upcoming case.

Legal Glossary of Terms

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Enacted by the Arizona legislature, the Arizona Revised Statutes are the laws that govern all aspects of state law, from criminal and civil laws to administrative regulations.

Acceptance of Service (AOS)

The Acceptance of Service (AOS) document completes the requirement of serving a party in a suit. This document can be signed by an attorney representing a client in lieu of the client having to be served by a process server.


Acquittal is the formal act of finding a defendant not guilty. A jury can acquit someone of the criminal charges they are facing following a jury trial. A judge may find that there is not enough evidence to support convicting the defendant.


Any evidence that is lawfully collected and properly introduced into a trial is admissible. One of the key roles of a judge is to determine whether evidence is admissible or not.

Adversary System Method The courts in the United States rely on an adversarial system where both parties make their case before a judge or jury. This is why family court cases are styled as petitioner versus defendant.


An affidavit is a statement written under oath. Affidavits are commonly filed along with motions to provide background information.


To affirm is to maintain and confirm the original ruling made by a lower court. This decision by a higher court affirms that the original decision was correct and should remain in effect.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) ADR is the method of resolving legal disputes outside of traditional court proceedings. Common examples include mediation, arbitration, and negotiation. These alternatives are generally less costly to the parties involved and less burdensome on the courts.


Appeals are the legal process of asking a higher court to review the decision of the lower court. Appeals generally do not review the judge’s decision but rather examine whether the petitioner was afforded due process during the trial in question.


The person or party appealing the ruling of a lower court is known as the appellant.


The appellee is the person or party against whom the appellant is requesting a higher court review.


In civil case matters, the responsibility of determining fault and liability can be assigned to a neutral third party (the arbitrator) through arbitration. Arbitration proceeds similarly to a court hearing and results in a binding decision, but it is much less formal.


Arraignment is the court process where defendants are formally notified of the criminal charges or charges that they are facing. It is at that time that defendants enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.


A legal professional who went to law school and is admitted to the State Bar of Arizona. An attorney-at-law is authorized to represent clients in legal proceedings. They are also known as a lawyer or counselor.


Bail refers to any funds posted as a condition of release from jail. Bail is held until the criminal case is fully resolved. The issuance of a security is intended to ensure that defendants make court appearances.

Bench trial

A bench trial is a trial in which the judge acts as the finder of facts rather than a jury. In many criminal and civil cases, a defendant can choose either option.


A brief is a written statement outlining the facts, laws, and case law tied to a specific case. Legal briefs are used in various stages of litigation, including motions, appeals, and trial preparations.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is the responsibility to prove via evidence or witness statements that one party is correct. In criminal matters, the burden of proof is on the state to prove that the defendant committed the act in question. In civil matters, the plaintiff has the burden of proof to demonstrate that they have incurred damages as a result of the defendant’s actions or inactions.


A case is any suit or legal action brought before the court system.

Case Law

Together, legal precedents written by appellate court judges constitute case law. Past decisions by the higher courts can be considered by lower courts when considering the merits of a particular case.


In the legal system, chambers are the private quarters of judges and justices.

Civil Complaint

A civil complaint is a legal document filed by the plaintiff in a civil matter that outlines the allegations or claims made against a defendant. Civil complaints often initiate lawsuits.

Civil Law

Civil law refers to the laws governing civil matters, such as domestic relations, probate, and small claims court. Civil law is separate from criminal law because the primary remedy for civil actions is money, whereas criminal courts can detain defendants in jail or prison upon conviction.

Common Law

The body of unwritten laws, common law, is based on legal precedents. Common law originated in England and developed through the decisions of judges in individual cases. Common law stands in contrast to other forms of codifying law, such as legislative statutes or executive branch action.

Community Funds/Community Property

In Arizona, funds belonging to both spouses equally are known as community funds or community property. During a divorce, the courts divide community funds in an equitable manner. Any funds that were brought into a marriage or inherited are considered personal property and may not be subject to division through the courts.


Conviction is the formal process of rendering a verdict of guilt upon a defendant in criminal court. This is done through a verdict by a jury or a decision by the judge. A conviction in criminal court requires the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime of which they are accused.


In a civil case, the defendant can respond to the plaintiff’s complaint with their own complaint. For this counterclaim, the defendant becomes a plaintiff.

County Attorney

Also known as a prosecutor or assistant district attorney, the county attorney is a government employee who represents the county on criminal and civil matters.

Court Administrator

A court administrator is any person who assists the sitting judge in managing the court. A court clerk would be an example of a court administrator.

Court of Record

A court of record is any court that is required by law to keep and maintain records of all past proceedings.

Court Reporter

A court reporter is the person tasked with taking and transcribing the oral statements of a court hearing. Any party to a family court case may request a transcript from a court reporter. There is often a fee involved.

Courtroom Clerk

The clerk is the individual responsible for documenting specific court proceedings, including the date, names of parties, and case number, as well as maintaining court records.


Crime is any act forbidden by law. Crimes in Arizona are punishable by fines, probation, imprisonment, or other court-ordered penalties.

Default Judgment

When one party fails to appear at a civil case hearing or trial, the present party may ask the judge to make a default judgment in favor of the party who appeared before the court.


Defandant is defined as the person who is accused of committing a crime or being sued in a civil case. Defendants have many rights under state and federal law. One of the primary jobs of a family law attorney is to defend the rights of their clients.

Delinquent Act

A delinquent act is any act committed by a juvenile that would qualify as a crime if it were committed by an adult.


Dependency is any relationship where one person depends on another for financial and other forms of support.


The pretrial process of gathering evidence is known as discovery. Subpoenas are used for this purpose. Parties in civil and criminal cases can compel individuals and groups to release evidence that is relevant to the ongoing case.


Dismissal occurs when a judge agrees to drop a lawsuit or a portion of a lawsuit.

Domestic Relations

Domestic relations are the area of law pertaining to family law. Child custody, child support, divorce, and other family-related matters fall under the purview of domestic relations.


Felonies are established in each state’s code and are serious crimes that come with the potential for prison sentencing. Felonies often involve serious harm to victims. Murder, manslaughter, and aggravated assault are common felonies.

Forcible Entry and Detainer

A common proceeding in landlord/tenant disputes, forcible entry and detainer is a special proceeding for the return of land to the person who has been deprived of the use of their land.

General Jurisdiction Court

A general jurisdiction court is any court that is authorized to hear legal matters that are not exclusively assigned to another court. While large urban courts generally specialize in probate, family, or criminal matters, a court of general jurisdiction may hear all of those types of cases over the course of a day.

Grand Jury

A grand jury is a group of citizens called to determine whether there is probable cause to bring criminal charges against an individual. If the grand jury decides to bring charges, the defendant is indicted, and the grand jury issues a “true bill” of indictment. The indictment begins the criminal case for the defendant.


Impeachment is the formal process of removing an elected or appointed individual from office. Impeachments usually require several steps, including a quasi-judicial trial.


A juvenile who is deemed to be unmanageable by the courts may be labeled as incorrigible. Truancy and a pattern of running away are common acts committed by incorrigible minors.


Indictments are formal accusations by members of a grand jury that there is probable cause that a defendant committed a crime. They are typically reserved for serious crimes like felonies. Following an indictment, the defendant begins defending themselves in criminal court.

Initial Appearance

This is the first court appearance by a defendant who is charged with committing a crime. The defendant often pleads guilty or not guilty.


Following a civil case, one party may be ordered to pay compensation to the plaintiff. Insolvency is the inability of the defendant to pay compensation or debt.


Judges are the public officials elected or appointed to preside over court proceedings. Judges are tasked with interpreting and applying the law. They are expected to make rulings fairly and impartially.


Judgments are defined as the ruling of a court regarding the claims or allegations tied to a civil or criminal case. All judgments are final and can only be overturned or remanded by a higher court.

Judge Pro Tempore

A judge who is assigned to perform the duties of a presiding judge is known as a judge pro tempore. Visiting judges are one such example.


Jurisdiction is defined as the legal authority to hear a case and dispense justice. Courts do not have boundless legal authority and are given geographical areas where they are authorized to hear cases. Only one court can have jurisdiction over a case at one time.

Jury Foreman

Juries assign a jury foreman who is effectively the spokesperson for the jury.


Typically codified through legislation as statutes, laws regulate the acts of individuals within a society. Laws can also be created through executive action. Higher courts can set precedents for how laws are to be interpreted.

Limited Jurisdiction Court

Certain courts can only hear limited types of cases and have limited jurisdiction. Justice and municipal courts are examples of limited jurisdiction courts.


Any person involved in a lawsuit is a litigant.


The act of using the court system to achieve a goal is known as litigation. Litigation often refers to actions inside the courtroom as opposed to other court-related measures like negotiation or mediation.


All judicial officers who have the authority to issue warrants for arrest are magistrates.


A misdemeanor is labeled as such by the state and is a less serious crime than a felony. Misdemeanor crimes are typically non-violent, although they can still result in significant jail time for defendants who are found guilty. Lengthy prison sentences are reserved for felony crimes.


A formal request in writing for a judge to render an order on a specific matter is a motion.


An oath is a solemn promise or pledge where someone who is elected or appointed promises or swears to adhere to a set of rules or values.


In legal cases, an opinion is a written statement by an appellate court that details a higher court order while describing some of the considerations the court took in making its decision.


Individuals, groups, companies, or governmental organizations involved in legal proceedings are thereby known as parties to the case.


A written request, signed by one or more petitioners, that asks the court to take specific legal action is known as a petition.


The person who files a lawsuit in a civil action is the plaintiff. In criminal cases, prosecutors act as the plaintiff.


A plea is the admission or denial of guilt by the defendant. The typical plea is guilty or not guilty.

Plea Bargain

Please bargaining is the process of settling a criminal case. The prosecutors often offer a lower criminal charge or lower penalties in return for an admission of guilt by the defendant. Plea bargains play an important role in keeping court dockets moving.


Geographic subdivision of a city, town, or county used to describe the jurisdiction of a justice of the peace or for election purposes are known as precincts.

Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing may be held to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a criminal case to trial.

Presiding Judge

The presiding judge handles the duties of the court. Presiding judges are often administrative judges.

Probable Cause

Probable cause is the standard that is used to arrest or detain someone on suspicion of committing a crime. Probable cause is often defined as the reasonable belief that someone engaged in criminal activity.


Probation is the conditional suspension of a jail or prison sentence. It is conditional, meaning that the person who is placed on probation must complete the terms of the probation. Probation can be revoked if the defendant violates the terms of probation.

Pro Se

Pro se litigants take on the responsibility of representing themselves in court.


The attorney representing the state in criminal matters is known as the prosecutor.


To remand is to order a case to be sent back to a lower court for retrial.


Sentencing is the process of imposing a punishment on a defendant. Guidelines are set forth via criminal law statutes. Judges can sentence defendants following an admission or finding of guilt as long as the judge works within the sentencing guidelines.


A settlement is an agreement that allows a case to avoid going to trial. Settlements must be accepted by both parties before a case can be closed.


A summons is a court-issued document instructing law enforcement to notify the defendant about a filed complaint and to appear and respond by a specified date.


Testimony consists of statements made under oath by litigants or witnesses who have information that is useful for the resolution of a civil or criminal matter. Testimony in court is taken under oath, and any willful acts to deceive the court through false statements can lead to punishment for perjury.


The official record, word-for-word, of court proceedings in a civil or criminal case is known as the transcript.


A trial is the formal presentation of evidence before a judge or jury to determine whether the defendant committed the act of which they are accused.

Trial de Novo

This is a request for a new trial from a higher court, usually following the ruling of an appointed associate judge.


Witnesses are people who recount what they heard or saw in a court case. This could be given via verbal statements during a hearing or trial or through a written statement. Expert witnesses are professionals asked to give their opinions regarding specific aspects of the case.

The Valley Law Group Can Help

Family law matters can be emotional and complicated to settle. Our Arizona family law attorneys at The Valley Law Group bring decades of experience. We will help you navigate the state’s complex family law process while focusing on the well-being of your family and finding solutions that work for you.

Understanding the justice system in Arizona and general legal terms is important for any party in a case, but there is no replacement for professional legal representation. Don’t risk navigating the family court system alone. Seek help from our dedicated and qualified attorneys.

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