Family Court Glossary of Legal Terms

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K - L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U - V | W - Z |


ACQUITTAL: A finding of not guilty; the legal and formal certification of the innocence of a person who has been charged with a crime.

ADDENDUM (ORDER): A later addition or supplement to an order or court document.

ADJUDICATION:   The process of rendering a judicial decision as to whether the facts alleged in a petition or other pleading are true.  An adjudicatory hearing is that Court proceeding in which it is determined whether the allegations of the petition are supported by evidence.  Also called a "Jurisdictional" or an "Evidentiary" hearing.

     When a matter (civil or criminal) is brought before the Court it must then be decided, settled or resolved.  The act of deciding finally is called adjudication.

ADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE :  Evidence which can legally and properly be used in Court.

ADMISSION:   1)  A statement tending to establish the guilt of the person making the statement.  2) The transfer of a minor's physical custody to a detention or shelter facility.

ADOPTION:   A legal proceeding in which an adult takes, as his or her lawful child, a minor who is not the adoptive parent's natural offspring.  The adopted minor loses all legal connection to the previous parent(s), and the adoptive parent undertakes permanently the responsibility of providing for the child.

     Compare GUARDIANSHIP .

AFFIANT: The person who makes or subscribes an affidavit.

AFFIDAVIT:   A written statement of facts signed under penalty of perjury, often before a Court clerk or notary public who administers the oath to the signing party.

ALLEGATION:   A charge; a statement of fact in a petition or complaint which must be proved if the petition or complaint is to be found true. 

    A charge or claim set forth in a petition, which must be proven true or false at a hearing.

AMENABILITY HEARING :  A hearing to determine whether a child's case will be heard in Family Court (as a juvenile) or in Superior Court (as an adult).

AMENDMENT :  To change or modify, to alter by modification, deletion or addition.

AMICABLE :  Friendly, mutually forbearing; agreed or assented to by parties having conflicting interests or a dispute; as opposed to hostile or adversary.

ANCILLARY MATTERS:   Matters in dispute between the parties in connection with divorce or annulment including equitable division of marital property, alimony, and attorneys fees, to be resolved after the divorce.

ANNUAL REVIEW:   Yearly judicial review, usually in dependency cases, to determine whether a child requires continued Court supervision or placement.  Increasingly required by state laws, but also often set as policy by local Court rule.  Sometimes, reviews are required at other than yearly intervals.

ANSWER :  A formal written statement in which the respondent in a civil case sets forth his or her defense to the relief asked for in the petition.

APPEAL:   Resort to a higher Court, in the attempt to have the decision of a trial Court changed. Appeals from Family Court are filed either in Superior Court or in the Supreme Court, depending on the type of case.

APPEARANCE:   Coming into court as party to a suit, either in person or represented by an attorney, whether as plaintiff or defendant.

APPELLANT:   The party who initiates an appeal.

APPELLEE:   The party against whom an appeal is taken; also called the respondent.

ARBITRATION :  The process by which minor delinquency and some adult criminal charges are settled without a hearing before a Judge.  This process of dispute resolution involves a neutral third party, an Arbitration Officer, who renders a decision after both parties are given the opportunity to be heard.

ARRAIGNMENT :  A hearing to advise the accused of his/her rights during which the accused enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendre (no contest).

ARREARS :  An overdue support payment.

ASSETS: Property of all kinds, real and personal, tangible and intangible, which belong to any person (including a corporation or the estate of a decedent).

return to top



BAIL :  The amount of money an individual charged with an offense must pay in order to be released between the time the individual is charged and the trial.  Bail is set by a judicial officer for the purpose of ensuring that the accused will appear in court as commanded.

BENCH :  The seat occupied by a judicial officer.

BEST INTEREST OF CHILD:   The standard used by the Court to determine issues of custody and visitation.

BURDEN OF PROOF:   The duty to establish a claim or allegation at the time of hearing.  Generally, the party making allegations will have the burden of proving those allegations.

return to top




CAPIAS :  An order issued by a Court to take an individual into custody.  It is generally issued when a litigant fails to appear for a court hearing or trial.

CASA :  Court Appointed Special Advocate is a trained volunteer appointed by a Family Court Judge to represent the best interests of abused, neglected, or dependent children who are the subject of Court proceedings.

CASE REVIEW :  To review the evidence in an attempt to generate an offer and acceptance of a plea agreement.  A process by which counsel for the State and the defendant or respondent in adult criminal and juvenile delinquency cases appears before a Family Court Judge.

CENTRAL REGISTRY:   Records of child abuse reports compiled under State law or voluntary agreement among public agencies.

CERTIFIED COPY:   A copy of a document or record, signed and certified as a true copy by the officer having custody of the original.

CHARGE :  A complaint having a legal basis found in the Delaware Criminal Code or the Municipal Code.

CHIEF JUDGE :  The administrative head of Family Court.  Qualifications and judicial authority are the same as the Associate Judge.  The Chief Judge is nominated by the Governor and approved by the Delaware State Senate.  The Chief Judge is responsible for the administrative affairs of Family Court and for executing judicial policies as set forth by the body of judges.  He or she does not have the power of judicial review of decisions made by Associate Judges of Family Court.

CHILD ABUSE:   Traditionally, any physical mistreatment of a child, as opposed to child neglect or negligent care.  However, the term is increasingly used to cover any "physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment or maltreatment of a a person who is responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances which indicate that the child's health or welfare is harmed or threatened thereby," and is so defined in the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Pub. Law 93.247,1974).

CHILD NEGLECT:   Failure by a parent or custodian to render appropriate care to a child; an act of omission by the person legally responsible for a child's care which threatens the child's well-being.  Failure to provide a child with suitable food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, medical care or parental supervision.


CIVIL PROCEEDING:   All lawsuits other than criminal prosecutions, including juvenile delinquency cases.  See also STANDARD OF PROOF .

CLERK :  Officer of court, who accepts pleadings, motions, judgments, etc., issues process, and keeps records of court proceedings.

COMMISSIONER :  A judicial officer appointed by the Governor, confirmed by the Senate with constitutional powers including the power to incarcerate.  A Commissioner can hear any civil case within the Court's jurisdiction not precluded by statute as well as criminal and delinquency cases, including those resulting in detention of a juvenile, and incarceration of an adult.  Appointed to a 4-year term.

COMMITMENT :  When a court sentences a person to confinement in a penal institution or mental health facility.  An order by which the court directs an officer of the court to take a person to a penal institution or mental health facility.

COMMON LAW:   Law developed as the result of judicial decisions rather than by statutes written by the legislature.  (see STATUTE )

COMPETENCY:   A witness' ability to observe, recall and recount under oath what happened.

COMPLAINANT :  The person who applies to the court for legal redress by filing a complaint.

COMPLAINT:   A sworn statement filed in Court alleging that an individual has harmed or violated the rights of the person filing the complaint or that an individual has committed a crime.

    1) An oral statement, usually made to police, charging criminal, abusive or neglectful conduct; 2) a District Attorney's document which starts a criminal prosecution (also known in many states as an "information"); and 3) the initiating pleading in a criminal or civil case, filed by the moving party and setting out the cause of action.  In Family Court, the complaint is usually called a "petition".

CONCILIATION COURT:   A branch of Domestic Relations Courts in some states, usually staffed by counselors and social workers rather than by lawyers or judges, designed to explore and promote the reconciliation of divorcing parents.

CONFIDENTIALITY :   Told in confidence, intended to be kept secret.  Many communications from parent to doctor or social workers are "confidentially" made, but may later be used in abuse or neglect hearings.


CONSENT :  An agreement of the parties resolving pending matters before the court.

CONTEMPT :  The action of a person who willfully disobeys a court order or fails to comply with a court decision.

CONTINUANCE :  The adjournment or postponement of a session, hearing, trial or other proceeding to a subsequent day or time.

COUNSEL :  Advice or assistance given by one person to another in regard to a legal matter.  May also be used to refer to an attorney.

COUNTERCLAIM: A claim presented by a defendant in opposition to the claim of the plaintiff.

CRIMINAL PROSECUTION :   The filing of allegations by the State which constitute a charge of criminal activity, followed by the arraignment and trial of the defendant (unless PLEA BARGAINING resolves the case sooner).  Criminal prosecutions may result in imprisonment, fines, and/or probation.

     Criminal defendants are entitled to acquittal unless charges are proven against them beyond a reasonable doubt .

CROSS-PETITION: A formal written application to the Court requesting judicial action on a certain matter against a party/person who has already filed a petition in that case.

CUSTODY:   The right to or responsibility for a child's care and control, carrying with it the duty of providing food, shelter, medical care, education and discipline.  Custody can be joint or sole .

CUSTODY (JOINT LEGAL ):  Where parents have equal decision making authority regarding the care and control of a child.  Joint custody differs from Residential Custody.

CUSTODY (SOLE LEGAL) :  One parent, the sole legal custodian, makes all major decisions affecting the child(ren).

return to top




DEFAULT ORDER :  An order entered against a party who has failed to appear after proper notice to defend against a claim that has been brought by another party.

DEFENDANT :  The party against whom relief or recovery is sought in a suit or the accused in a criminal case.

DEFICIENT FILING: A document filed with the Court that does not contain the necessary requirements, fees or elements.

DELINQUENCY:   The commission of an illegal act by a juvenile.

DELINQUENT CHILD :  A child who commits an act, which if committed by an adult, would constitute a crime.

DEPENDENT CHILD:   A child whose physical, mental or emotional health and well-being is threatened or impaired because of the inability of the child's custodian to provide adequate care and protection.

DETENTION :  The confinement of a juvenile by a legally authorized person.

DETENTION HEARING (ALSO KNOWN AS "BAIL" OR "BOND" HEARING):   A Court hearing held to determine whether a minor who is alleged to be delinquent should be kept away from his parents until a full trial can be held.  Detention hearings must usually be held within 24 hours of the filing of a DETENTION REQUEST.

DETENTION REQUEST:   A document filed with the Clerk of Family Court, by a probation officer, social worker, or prosecutor, asking that a detention hearing be held, and that a minor be detained until the detention hearing has taken place.  Detention requests must usually be filed within 48 hours of the time custody of the minor begins.

DISMISS :  To dispose of an action or suit without any further consideration or hearing.

DISPOSITION :  The Judicial Officer's written order as to how the case was decided.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY:   A government prosecutor of suspected crimes.  See also CRIMINAL PROSECUTION .  In Delaware, the prosecutor is referred to as the Attorney General.        

DIVERSION:   Procedures for handling relatively minor criminal cases informally without referral to the Court.

DOCKET: A brief, formal record of the proceedings of the Court.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE :  A pattern of assaulting and controlling behaviors, including physical, sexual and psychological attacks, committed by one family member against another or by an intimate partner against the other partner.

DUE PROCESS The constitutionally guaranteed right of persons to be treated by the law with fundamental fairness.  In criminal proceedings, due process means the right to adequate notice in advance of hearings, the right to counsel, the right to confront and cross examine witnesses, the right to refuse to give self-incriminating testimony, the right to notification of allegations of misconduct in advance of the hearing and the right to have allegations proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

return to top




EMERGENCY (PRIORITY): An unforeseen combination of circumstances that calls for immediate action without time for full deliberation. An emergency/priority order will be issued by the Court, without notice to the parties for a hearing, when it appears from facts shown by affidavit or verified complaint that immediate and irreparable harm will result before the adverse party can be heard.

ENTRY OF APPEARANCE:   A coming into court as party to a suit, either in person or by an attorney, whether plaintiff or defendant.

EQUITY:   Historically, a system of justice which grew up separate and distinct from the common law and was not bound by its precedents, so that it could accomplish just relief where the common law could not.  The legal system's exercise of jurisdiction over families and children is founded on principles of equity.

EVIDENCE:   Any sort of proof submitted to a Court for the purpose of influencing the Court's decision.  Some special kinds of evidence are: 

    Circumstantial Evidence - Evidence which implies another fact.
    Direct Evidence - First-hand evidence, usually of a witness who saw an act committed.
    Hearsay Evidence - Testimony about an out-of-court statement made by someone other than the person testifying; for example, "I heard him say..."  Except where the law provides an exception to the hearsay rule, such evidence is usually excluded because it is considered unreliable and because the person who made the original statement cannot be cross-examined as to the factual basis for the statement.  There are numerous exceptions to the hearsay rule, however.
    Physical Evidence - Any tangible piece of proof, such as a document, x-ray print, photograph, firearm, etc.  Also called "real" evidence.

EX PARTE:   A judicial proceeding or order which is held or granted at the instance and for the benefit of one party without notice to the other party.  Normally, these hearings are held on an emergency basis. A full hearing with notice to both parties is held at a later date.

EXHIBIT -  see EVIDENCE (Physical Evidence)

EXPERT TESTIMONY:   Witnesses with various types of expertise may testify in a case.  Experts are usually questioned in Court first about their education or experience which qualifies them to give opinions about certain matters.  Only after the hearing officer decides that the witness is sufficiently expert in the subject matter may the witness proceed to state his or her opinions.  Doctors and psychologists are common expert witnesses in Family Court cases.  See also EVIDENCE (Opinion Evidence) .

EXPUNGEMENT:   The destruction or sealing of records of minors or adults, after the passage of a specified period of time or when the person reaches a specified age and has not committed another offense.  Sometimes provided for by statute and sometimes ordered by the Court under its inherent powers.

See also SEALING .

EXTRAORDINARY WRIT:   A writ, often issued by an Appellate Court, making available remedies not regularly within the power of lower Courts.

return to top




FAMILY:   Under Delaware law, for the purpose of determining whether Family Court has jurisdiction over a case, family is defined as: husband and wife; a man and woman cohabiting in a home in which there is a child of either or both; custodian and child; or any group of persons related by blood or marriage, without regard to legitimacy and relationships by adoption, who are residing in one home under one head and where one is related to the other by any of the following degrees of relationship, both parties being residents of this State:  mother, father, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter, stepfather, stepmother.

FAMIS:   Family Court's automated information system.

FELONY: Differs legally from a misdemeanor because of the punishment, imposed.  The most serious category of crimes, which includes murder, rape, kidnapping, assault, robbery, burglary, arson, theft, carrying a concealed deadly weapon.  The punishment may be imprisonment for longer than a year, and/or a fine greater than $1,000.00.

FERRIS:   Secure facility where some male juveniles are placed once they are adjudicated delinquent.  This facility serves as both a detention and rehabilitation center.

FIFTH AMENDMENT :   The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees several rights to criminal defendants.  One of the rights available under the Fifth Amendment is the right of a defendant not to incriminate himself.  When a witness "takes the Fifth", he refuses to answer a question on the basis that his answer might tend to incriminate himself.  (but see IMMUNITY ).  See also DUE PROCESS .

FILING: A paper is filed when it is delivered to the Clerk of Court, to be entered and docketed in the court's file.

FOSTER CARE:   A form of substitute care, usually in a home licensed by a public agency, for children whose welfare requires that they be removed from their own homes.

FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT:   The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution secures to every person due process rights to life, liberty and property.

FOURTH AMENDMENT:   The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, protects every person against unlawful search and seizure.

return to top




GUARDIAN:   An adult appointed by a Probate or Family Court to serve as custodian of a minor until the minor's parent proves renewed ability to provide proper care to the child.  A guardian has almost all the rights and powers of a natural parent, but the relationship is subject to termination or change (compare ADOPTION ).

GUARDIAN AD LITEM:   An adult who is appointed by a Court to act in the minor's behalf ad litem (in a lawsuit), because minors lack the legal capacity to sue or defend against suit. The guardian is considered an officer of the court. 

Guardian Ad Litem are sometimes known as NEXT FRIENDS .  In Delaware, the CASA serves as a Guardian Ad Litem for the child.

GUARDIANSHIP:   The power and duty of taking care of, and/or managing property and rights of a child or an individual who is considered incapable of taking care of his/herself.

return to top




HABEAS CORPUS:   An extraordinary writ ordering a public officer holding a person in confinement to bring the person before the Court for release.  Used to secure the release from custody of minors or adults being illegally held.

HEARING:   A trial or other proceeding before a judicial officer.  Several types are described below:

    Adjudicatory hearing – In delinquency cases, a fact finding hearing to determine whether the accused committed the alleged acts; in civil cases, a fact finding hearing to determine the rights and duties of the parties.
    Amenability hearing – A hearing in Family Court to decide whether the juvenile charged with a serious crime can be effectively helped by our Court, or whether the juvenile should be treated as an adult and the case transferred to Superior Court.  Required for juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 who have committed certain felonies.
    Arraignment – A hearing to notify the accused of his or her rights and of the charge before the court.  The accused must enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or, where permitted, "nolo contendre".
    Bond (Bail) hearing – Hearing during which a Judge or Commissioner sets an amount of money, which the defendant/respondent must post, or be incarcerated in default of bail, pending dispositional hearing.
    Fact Finding hearing – A formal trial before a judge, commissioner, or master where witnesses may be present to testify, to determine if the allegations are true.

HEARING DE NOVO:   A full new hearing or trial, as opposed to a review of a court decision on a transcript or record.

HEARING OFFICER:   The individual who presides at a judicial proceeding. 


HOME CONFINEMENT:   Program through Probation and Parole ordered by the court where a person is committed to stay at home.  Individuals subject to home confinement are monitored electronically through an ankle bracelet using the person's telephone.

return to top




IMMUNITY:   Legal protection from liability.  1)  Reporting statutes require certain persons to report suspected child abuse; the same statutes often confer immunity upon the persons required to report, giving them an absolute defense to libel, slander, invasion of privacy, false arrest, and other lawsuits which disgruntled parents might file; even when the report turns out to have been false, reporters have immunity from liability so long as they acted "in good faith" when they reported.  2) In criminal prosecutions, immunity from criminal liability is sometimes conferred upon a witness in order to secure from him vital testimony.  Thereafter, the witness cannot himself be prosecuted with the use of information he disclosed in his testimony.  He can be compelled to testify in this way, despite the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination.  If an immunized witness refuses to testify, he can be imprisoned for contempt of Court.

IN LOCO PARENTIS:   Refers to a custodian, guardian or other person acting in the parent's place and stead.

IN CAMERA:   A hearing or judicial proceeding conducted in chambers or privately.

INCARCERATION:   Confinement of a juvenile or adult in a secured correctional institution.

INCEST:   A person is guilty of incest if he engages in sexual intercourse with another family member.   The relationships include blood relationships without regard to legitimacy and relationships by adoption.

INDICTMENT:   The report of a Grand Jury, charging an adult with criminal conduct.

INJUNCTION ORDER (PRELIMINARY): A court order prohibiting someone from doing some specified act or commanding someone to undo a wrong or injury.

return to top




JUDGE:   A lawyer, appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate who presides over court hearings and has the power to enter orders affecting the parties.  Family Court has one Chief Judge, who is the administrative head of the Court, and 12 Associate Judges.  All Family Court Judges are appointed for 12-year terms.

JUDGMENT: A final decision of the Court resolving the dispute and determining the rights of the parties involved in the case.

JURISDICTION:   The power of a particular Court to hear and dispose of cases involving certain categories of persons or allegations.  Family Court has jurisdiction over most juvenile delinquency cases, adult misdemeanor domestic violent crimes, and family civil actions, such as divorce and custody.

JURY:   A group of adults, selected by lawyers from a panel, to judge the truth of allegations made in a legal proceeding.  Family Court does not have jury trials.

JUVENILE:   A youth under 18 as established by the laws of the State of Delaware.

JUVENILE COURT:   Court which has jurisdiction (legal power) over minors only, usually handling cases of suspected delinquency as well as cases of suspected abuse or neglect.  In many states, terminations of parental rights occur in Juvenile Court proceedings, but that is generally the limit of Juvenile Court's power over adults.

JUVENILE DELINQUENCY: When a juvenile is found guilty of committing an act which would be a crime if the juvenile were an adult.

return to top


K - L


LIABILITY FOR FAILURE TO REPORT:   Most states have enacted statutes requiring certain categories of person (usually professionals involved with children) to report all cases where child abuse seems to have occurred.  To enforce the duty to report, most of these statutes impose a criminal penalty for failing to make the appropriate report.

LITIGANT:   A party to a case or lawsuit.

return to top




MALICE:   The intentional commission of a wrongful act without legal justification with the intent of inflicting injury or harm, or under circumstances such that the person acting should reasonably have known that injury or harm would result.

MANDAMUS:   An extraordinary writ issued by a higher Court and directed to a public executive or administrative officer or agency, or the judge of a lower Court, commanding the performance of a specified act.  Also known as "Writ of Mandate".

MANDATORY SENTENCING:   A law passed by the General Assembly requiring judicial officers to impose a certain sentence for particular crimes.

MASTER:   A person appointed by the Chief Judge to hear cases as assigned.  Masters' orders may be reviewed before a Judge of Family Court.

MATERIAL:   Evidence that relates to a substantive part or element of a case.

MEDIATION:   The process by which Court mediators assist parties to reach voluntary agreement in domestic relation matters (e.g., support, custody, visitation) without a formal court hearing before a Judge.  This is an informal dispute resolution process in which a neutral third party (Mediation Officer) helps litigants to reach an agreement.  The mediator has no power to impose a decision on the parties.

MEDICAL SUPPORT ORDER:   A medical support order requires one or both parents to provide health insurance and requires both parents to pay a portion of medical expenses not covered by health insurance for their children.

MELSON FORMULA:   The informal name of the Delaware Child Support Formula, named after former Judge Melson.  This is a standard guideline formula used to calculate child support obligations.

MIRANDA RULE :   From the U.S. Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona , 38-4 U.S. 436 (1966), the rule that confessions are inadmissible at trial if the police do not advise the subject of certain rights before questioning him or her.  The rights of which the subject must be advised include:  1) The right to remain silent and to refuse to answer any questions; 2) the right to know that anything he or she says can and will be used against him or her in a Court of law; 3) The right to consult with an attorney and to have an attorney present during questioning; 4) The right to have counsel appointed at public expense prior to any questioning if the subject cannot afford counsel.

     Though the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the question, good practice, and the laws of many states, requires that the warnings be given to juveniles.  Moreover, some states have required that a minor be advised of the right to have a parent, relative or other advisor present during questioning, in addition to counsel.

MISDEMEANOR:   A category of crime, for which the punishment can be no more than one year of imprisonment (usually in a county jail rather than state prison) and/or fine of $1,000.00.  Distinguished from a felony, which is more serious, and from an infraction, which is less serious (e.g., loitering).

MODIFICATION:   A change, alteration or amendment.

MOTION:   An application made to a court or judge in a pending matter for the purpose of obtaining an order directing some act to be done in favor of the applicant.

MOVING PARTY:   The party who initiates a motion.

return to top




NEGLIGENCE:   Any act or failure to act which a "reasonably prudent person" would not have done or failed to do.


NOLLE PROSEQUI:   A formal entry upon the record, usually by the prosecutor in a criminal action, by which he declares he will not further prosecute the case.

return to top




ON THE RECORD: Anything that is put on the written or recorded account of the court proceedings, to remain as permanent evidence of the matters to which it relates.

ORDER:   The direction of a court or judge, usually reduced to writing.

ORDINANCE:   A law enacted by the governing body of a city or county.

return to top




PARENS PATRIAE:   Lit. "The father of his country", from English law, the legal doctrine under which the Crown assumed the protection of certain minors, orphans, and other persons in need of protection. It is a concept used by courts when acting on behalf of the states to protect and control the property and custody of minors and incompetent persons.

PARTY:   A person who has filed a petition with the Court or who has had a petition filed against him or her.  A petitioner or a respondent.

PATERNITY:   The state or condition of a father; the establishment of a father and child relationship.

PERJURY:   A willful assertion under oath made by a witness in a judicial proceeding as part of his evidence, whether such evidence is given in open court, or in an affidavit, or otherwise, which the witness knows to be false.

PETITION:   A civil pleading filed to initiate a matter in Court, setting forth the alleged grounds for the Court to take jurisdiction of the case and the relief requested.  A formal written application to a court requesting judicial action on a certain matter.

PETITIONER:   The person initiating a legal action, usually in a civil case.  The person who presents a petition to a court.

PFA ORDER (PROTECTION FROM ABUSE ORDER):   Order preventing a person from abusing another person, where persons are members of following classes:  family; former spouses; man and woman cohabiting; or man and woman living apart with a child in common.  Relief granted may include restraining the respondent from committing domestic violence, restraining the respondent from contacting the other person, granting the petitioner exclusive possession of residence, granting temporary custody of children, awarding child and/or spousal support, ordering the respondent to relinquish firearms, and ordering participation in counseling.

PLACEMENT: The residential and/or custodial arrangements determined for a child by the Court.  The removal of a child from his or her natural home and placement in a different custodial setting for more than a short period of time.  Placement may be in a foster home, group home, relative's home, or an institution.  Juvenile or Family Courts sometimes place minors through their own staffs, but usually commit delinquents or dependent children to other agencies for placement services.

PLEA BARGAINING: The process whereby the accused and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval.  Settlement of a criminal prosecution, usually by the reduction of the charge and/or the penalty, in return for a plea of guilty.

PLEADINGS:   Any one of the formal written statements of accusation or defense in an action of law. 

     The formal allegations by the parties of their respective claims and defenses.

POLICE HOLD:   An emergency measure taken to detain a minor, often in hospital, until a written detention request can be filed.

PRAECIPE (ALIAS): A document filed with the Clerk of Court requesting that the Clerk take action, i.e., issue subpoenas, prepare a file for appeal, etc.

PRE-SENTENCE INVESTIGATION:   Investigation of the relevant background of a convicted offender, usually conducted by a probation officer or pre-sentence investigator assigned to a court, designed to serve as a sentencing guide for the sentencing judge.

PRE-SENTENCE REPORT:   A report prepared from the pre-sentence investigation, which is designed to assist the judge in passing sentence on a convicted defendant.

PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATIONS:   Confidential communications that are protected by statutes, so that they cannot be disclosed in Court over the objection of the holder of the privilege.  Lawyers are almost always able to refuse to disclose what a client told them in confidence.  Priests are similarly covered by other statutes.  Doctors and psychotherapists have generally lesser privileges and their testimony can be compelled in many cases involving child abuse or neglect.  See also CONFIDENTIALITY .

PRO SE:   Litigant who is representing himself (not represented by counsel).

PROBABLE CAUSE:   A reasonable ground for belief in the existence of facts warranting some action on the Court's part.

PROBATION:   Allowing a convicted criminal defendant or a juvenile found to be delinquent to remain at liberty, under a suspended sentence of imprisonment, generally under the supervision of a probation officer and usually under certain conditions.

PROBATION OFFICER:   One who supervises a person placed on probation by a court in a criminal proceeding.

PROSECUTION: In a criminal action, a proceeding instituted for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence of a person charged with a crime.

PROTECTIVE CUSTODY:   In child abuse and neglect cases, the emergency removal of a child from his home when the child would be in imminent danger if allowed to remain with the parent(s) or custodian(s).

PUBLIC DEFENDER:   An attorney appointed by a court to defend indigent defendants in criminal cases.


return to top





QUO WARRANTO:   An extraordinary writ usually issued by a higher Court to prevent continued assertion of unlawful authority by a public officer.

return to top




REHEARING:   When a matter is reconsidered by the Judicial Officer who first heard it, for the purpose of modifying an order or disposition.

RELEVANT:   Evidence that is logically connected to, and helps to prove, a material point or issue in a case.

REMAND :   To send back for further deliberation.  Often when an appellate court reverses a lower court decision, the case will be remanded to the lower court for reconsideration in light of the principles announced in the appellate court's decision.

REPORTING STATUTES:   Laws which require specified categories of person (usually professionals involved with children) to notify public authorities of instances of suspected child abuse, and sometimes neglect.

RESPONDENT:   The person against whom the petition or complaint is filed.

RESPONSE (TO MOTION): An answer to a pleading filed by the defendant/respondent, which addresses each of the allegations made by plaintiff/petitioner in his/her complaint.

RESTITUTION:   A process by which a juvenile or adult reimburses the victim for any loss or damage to person or property.

RETROACTIVE SUPPORT:   The establishment of back child support.

REVIEW DE NOVO:   A new hearing or trial, as opposed to a review of a transcript or record.

ROBINSON PLEA:   A plea of guilty where guilt is not admitted.

RULE 10:   Written plea of not guilty submitted to court including name, address, charges and signature of defendant and attorney including phone numbers.

return to top




SEALING : The closing of records to inspection by all but the parties involved.

SELF-INCRIMINATING:   The giving of a statement, in Court or during an investigation, which subjects the person giving the statement to criminal liability.


SENTENCE (DISPOSITION):   The hearing officer's written order as to how a case was decided.  In a criminal case, it is the punishment to be inflicted upon the defendant.

SENTENCING:   The last stage of criminal prosecution, in which a convicted defendant is ordered imprisoned, fined, or granted probation.

SOCIAL REPORT:   The document prepared by a probation officer or social worker for the Family Court hearing officer's consideration at the time of disposition of a case.  This report addresses the minor's history and environment.

STANDARD OF PROOF:   The level of proof required in a particular legal proceeding.  In criminal and delinquency cases, the offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  In neglect and dependency proceedings, and in civil cases generally, the standard of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence, a significantly lower standard which requires that the Judge believe that it is more likely than not, on the evidence presented, that neglect occurred.  In some cases, the standard of proof is by clear and convincing evidence, a standard more stringent than preponderance of the evidence and less demanding than beyond a reasonable doubt.

STARE DECISIS:   Legal doctrine which requires adherence to legal precedents (decisions of Appellate Courts) until they are overruled by the same or higher Courts.

STATUTE:   A law enacted by a State legislature or the U.S. Congress.

STEVENSON HOUSE:   Secure facility where pre-adjudicated juveniles are detained pending their hearing.

STIPULATION:   A voluntary agreement between the parties in a case, allowing a certain fact to be established in evidence without the necessity for further proof.

SUBPOENA:   A legal document, usually issued by a Court clerk, requiring that the person named in the subpoena appear or send materials requested on a stated day and time at a specified Court.  Failure to obey a subpoena is punishable as a contempt of Court.

SUBPOENA DUCES TECUM:   A subpoena served upon the person who has custody of records, commanding that such custodian bring the specified records to Court on the stated day and time.  Requires specific documents such as books or files to be submitted for review in a legal proceeding.

SUMMONS:   A legal document, issued by the Court Clerk or other Court officer, notifying the named person that a lawsuit or legal cause has been filed against or involves him or her, and notifying such person of any dates set for hearings and deadlines for responding to the complaint or petition.  The purpose of a summons is to notify the persons concerned.

SWORN COMPLAINT:   A form naming the charge against the defendant and signed by the complainant, in adult criminal and juvenile delinquency cases.

return to top




TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS (TPRs):   A legal proceeding to free a child from his or her parents so that the child can be adopted by others without the parents' written consent.

TESTIMONY:   A statement or declaration made to establish a fact or facts and given under oath.

TRANSFER:   The sending of a case from one court to another.  See also REMAND and WAIVER .

TRIAL:   A judicial hearing to determine issues between parties to an action through the testimony of witnesses and documentation.

return to top


U - V


VOIR DIRE:   1) Procedure by which attorneys question prospective jurors to determine any biases or prejudices; 2) In some states, procedure by which lawyers question expert witnesses to determine their qualifications before the experts are permitted to give opinion testimony.

return to top


W - Z


WAIVER :   The understanding and voluntary relinquishment of a known right, such as the right to counsel or the right to remain silent during police questioning.

WAIVER OF APPEARANCE: The relinquishment of the right to appear and/or participate in court proceedings.

WANTON:   Extremely reckless or malicious.  Often used in conjunction with willful to define certain kinds of behavior only vaguely distinguished from careless but lawful conduct.

WARD:   A minor who is under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for a delinquent act or an allegation or finding of abuse, neglect, or dependency.  Also, a person who has a legally appointed guardian is the ward of that guardian.

WARRANT:   Legal document issued by a judge authorizing the search of a place and seizure of specified items found there (search warrant), or the arrest or detention of a specified person (arrest warrant).  No hearing is required and the person need not be notified, but the Court must be given probable or reasonable cause to believe that the warrant is necessary for apprehension before it issues a warrant.  Affidavits are frequently used in establishing this probable or reasonable cause.

WILLFUL:   Some conduct becomes unlawful or negligent only when it is done willfully which means it is done with the understanding of the act and the intention that the act and its consequences should occur.

See also WANTON .

WITNESS:   A person called upon to testify in a Court proceeding.

WORK RELEASE:   Program supervised by Department of Corrections where a person committed to prison is allowed to leave for the purpose of either finding work or going to work.  They must return to the prison at the end of the work day.

WRIT:   An order issued by a Court commanding that a certain act or acts be done or not done.

WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS:   A legal paper issued by the court ordering a person to produce the body of another person.  It is sometimes used in disputed custody cases where one parent refuses to turn over the child to the other parent (its legal guardian) at the end of a visitation period.

return to top