Glossary of Legal Terms as Used in the Justice of the Peace Court


Abandoned Property - Petition filed by persons who are in possession of tangible personal property in which the rightful owner has left in that persons care/custody where the rightful owner has failed to maintain, pay for the storage of, exercise dominion or control over, and has failed to otherwise assert or declare the ownership rights to the tangible personal property for a period of 1 year.

Acquit - to clear a person of a criminal charge which has been made against them

Admissible evidence - evidence which the Court may hear in deciding the case. To be admissible, evidence must be relevant (helpful in deciding the case) and not unfairly prejudicial or based on hearsay.

Affidavit - a written statement of facts sworn to by someone authorized to administer oaths such as a notary or Delaware attorney.

Affirm - to pledge similarly to taking an oath but without reference to "swearing to". Witnesses may either take an oath or affirm that they will tell the truth.

Alias Request for Service - the second attempt of service (often to a different address) after the first attempt was unsuccessful.

Answer - the written response to the complaint in a civil action.Answers (using Civil Form No. 7) are required only in debt and trespass actions. In these actions, the Defendant must file the answer within 15 days of the date of receiving the complaint.

Appeal - to seek review of a Justice of the Peace Court ruling. Appeals in civil cases other than landlord-tenant cases are made to the Court of Common Pleas. In landlord-tenant cases, appeals are made to a special panel composed of 3 justices of the peace, in the same court in which the case was originally heard. All civil appeals, except landlord-tenant cases which were originally heard by a jury, consist of a new trial. In landlord-tenant jury cases, the special panel reviews the record of the case. In criminal cases, the defendant may appeal to the Court of Common Pleas, where a new trial will be held. The prosecution may appeal a decision in a criminal case only in limited circumstances.

Appellant - the party who appeals the Justice of the Peace Court decision.

Appellee - the party against whom an appeal is taken.

Arrest Warrant - a written order of the court which is made on behalf of the State which commands a law enforcement officer to arrest a person and bring him before a justice of the peace.

Arraignment - an appearance before the Court when a defendant tells the Court whether he or she wishes to plead guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere to a criminal charge.

Attachment - the seizing of a person's property to be held as security for a judgment or to be sold to satisfy a judgment.

Authentication - proof that evidence is what the person introducing it claims to be. Most often, evidence will be authenticated by testimony of a witness that they recognize the item they want admitted or have marked it in some way, or have kept it separate and secure to ensure that it was not changed. Some types of evidence, such as public documents under seal from a government agency or a court, or certified copies of public records, newspapers and periodicals, and inscriptions, do not need to be authenticated.

Bail - security by which a criminal defendant is released for a future appearance before the Court. The security may consist of the defendant's signature agreeing to appear (this is known as "OR" or "on own recognizance", cash, property, or a bail bond, as determined by the Court.

Bench - the raised area where the judge sits in the courtroom. The term "bench" may also be used to refer to the Court in its official capacity.

Bill of Particulars - a statement prepared by the Plaintiff giving specifics as to the basis for the Plaintiff's claim and how the amount claimed was determined. A bill of particulars may be demanded by the Defendant in debt actions only.

Brief - a written statement prepared by a lawyer or party to explain to the Court the facts and law relating to the case.

Burden of Proof - when facts are in dispute in a case, one party has the responsibility for providing evidence to persuade the Court to believe their version of the facts. Usually, the party who brought the case into court has the burden of proof. The burden of proof usually applied in a civil case is called "the preponderance of the evidence". This means that it is more probable than not that something happened. In a criminal case, the burden of proof is greater and the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime charged.

Case Law - the law which develops from court decisions. Such law is in addition to statutes enacted by the Delaware General Assembly or by the United States Congress.

Capias - an order to bring a person before the Court, similar to an arrest warrant, except that a capias is issued when a person has failed to appear in Court as required or has violated a condition of probation or a condition of release.

Civil Action - Generally, an action for a private right and remedy, as distinct from a criminal proceeding. (In some situations, civil actions may be brought by the State.)

Civil Contempt - A type of contempt of court (see definition of contempt of court below) which generally arises form a willful failure to comply with an order of court. A fine or imprisonment may be imposed with the object of obtaining compliance with the court's order. In civil contempt, a fine may be purged or imprisonment ended upon the compliance with the court's order of the person charged with contempt.

Complaint - in a civil action, the initial paperwork which begins the action when filed; in a criminal action, a charge against a person accused of an offense.

Constable - an officer who is authorized to serve court papers, execute on civil judgments, transport prisoners, maintain court security, and perform other similar functions for the Justice of the Peace Court.

Constable Sale - a sale of personal property of a person against whom a money judgment was entered and who has not paid the judgment, made at the request of the judgment creditor.

Contempt of Court - Conduct which defies the authority of the court, such as disobeying a court order or unruly behavior in the courtroom.

Continuance - a rescheduling of a court proceeding.

Conviction - a finding of guilty made by the Court or a plea of guilty or nolo contendere accepted by the Court.

Counterclaim - a claim made against an opposing party after an original claim has been made.

Court Costs - fees and charges required by law to be paid to the court.

Court of Common Pleas - the Delaware court having jurisdiction of up to $75,000 (as of October 21,2019) in civil cases and all misdemeanors except certain drug-related offenses and traffic cases. The Court of Common pleas is also responsible for all preliminary hearings in felony cases and is the appellate court for Justice of the Peace Court civil (other than Landlord-Tenant cases) and criminal cases.

Crime - an act or failure to act in violation of a law.

Criminal Action - generally, an action brought by the State to punish offenses against the law as contained in the Delaware statutes.

Criminal Contempt - a contempt of court (see definition above) that occurs either in front of the court (direct) or outside the presence of the court (indirect), which is defined as a crime in the Delaware statutes and which is punished by a fine and/or imprisonment. Unlike a civil contempt, the punishment for a criminal contempt cannot be avoided or lessened by subsequently following the court's order.

Cross Claim - a claim made by one party against a co-party of the same petition (claim).

Cross Examination - questioning of a witness by the party opposed to the one who called the witness to testify. Generally, the questioning must be limited to matters covered in the previous testimony of the witness (direct examination).

Damages - money claimed, or ordered by the Court to be paid to a person as compensation for loss or injury. The Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction to award damages in a civil case of up to $25,000.

Debt Action - A debt action is a civil claim for a sum of money. Examples of debt actions include money claimed on a loan, money claimed for purchases made, money claimed because work for which payment has been made was not completed or properly done, money claimed of unpaid rent, and security deposits not returned. The Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction to award damages of up to $25,000 in a debt action.

Default Judgment - a judgment which may be entered, in a civil case, when no answer is received by the Court from the Defendant within the proper time period or when the Defendant fails to appear as required.

Defendant - the party being sued in a civil case or the accused in a criminal proceeding.

Defendant History - a form filled out or updated by a defendant, which provides the court with information needed for court records.

Deferred Payment - payment of fines and/or costs postponed to a future time; installment payments of fines and costs.

Direct Examination - the first questioning of a witness at a trial; this is done by the party who called the witness to testify.

Dismissal - the termination of an action prior to trial or conviction.

Distress for Rent - Landlord tenant cases that deal with commercial property where a tenant's rent is in arrears and the landlord is seeking possession (filed as a separate action). A Distress for Rent action permits a levy upon and sale of the tenant's goods if back rent is owed and there is reason to believe that the tenant would dispose of the goods in the absence of the levy. The purpose of seizure and sale of the tenant's goods is to reimburse the landlord for any unpaid rent. Upon filing of these actions, a judge shall require Plaintiff to post a cash bond or bond with surety.

Elements of a Crime - the individual parts of an act (or failure to act) which make it a crime. For example, the elements of Menacing as an unclassified misdemeanor are: 1) by some movement of body or any instrument; 2) the person intentionally; 3) places another person in fear of imminent physical injury. The prosecution must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt.

Evidence - any form of proof presented to the Court to show the existence or nonexistence of a fact. Evidence may include testimony (what a person says under oath during a trial), documents, photographs, recordings, or objects.

Execution - court enforcement of a money judgment by seizing and selling the property of the judgment debtor or by garnishing the wages of the judgment debtor.

Expert Witness - a witness who has been shown to the Court to be qualified by their special knowledge skill or experience (scientific, technical, or other) and who can testify as an expert in a specific field. Expert witnesses can give opinions based on their special knowledge or skill.

Family Court - The court which has jurisdiction of civil and criminal matters involving family members and juveniles (except minor traffic offenses of juveniles ages 16 and 17, which are handled by the Justice of the Peace Court.)

Felony - a crime of a more serious nature than a crime designated as a misdemeanor or violation. Although a person accused of a felony may be brought before a justice of the peace for the setting of bail, the Justice of the Peace Court may not try or accept pleas in felony cases.

File - to submit a legal document to the Court.

Fine - a sentence to pay a penalty in money.

Form 50 - a Justice of the Peace Court Civil Form used by an artificial entity (such as a corporation) or a public body seeking to appear in a civil case in the Justice of the Peace Court without an attorney.

Forthwith - immediately; without delay.

Garnish - to attach (see definition of attachment above) property held by a third party to satisfy a debt.

Hearsay - a statement, other than one made by a person while testifying at trial, that is used to prove the truth of what was said in the statement. As a general rule, hearsay is not admissible in court - however, there are a number of exceptions to this rule which are contained in the Delaware Rules of Evidence.

Impeach - to challenge the credibility of a witness or to challenge the accuracy or authenticity of a document.

Indigent - one who is without sufficient income or property to enable them to pay court costs. Such persons may apply to the court to file "in forma pauperis" so that court costs may be waived.

In Forma Pauperis - A party to a suit who has their filing fees waived by filing a declaration of lack of funds (has no money to pay). The party must file an “Application and affidavit to proceed In Forma Pauperis” which must be approved by the judge.

Injunction - a court order to take or prevent a certain action. The Justice of the Peace Court has authority to issue injunctions only in Landlord-Tenant cases.

Injury - damage to a person's property or the violations of a person's legal right.

Interpleader - A suit pleaded between two parties to determine a matter of claim or right to property held by a third party.

Irreparable harm - harm or injury for which no amount of monetary compensation can adequately and sufficiently make the injured party truly whole or reverse the injury.

Jurisdiction - the power of a court to hear and decide cases based on the type of case and geographical considerations. In criminal cases, the Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction to try those misdemeanors and violations (including those of local governments) which the General Assembly has specifically authorized it to hear and usually, the crime must have been committed in Delaware. In civil cases, the Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction to award money damages of up to $25,000 and may handle debt, trespass, replevin, and landlord-tenant actions.

Judgment - the final decision of the Court on a matter before it.

Justice of the Peace - a judge in the Justice of the Peace Court. Justice of the Peace, unlike judges in the higher courts, are not required to be lawyers.

Landlord-Tenant Code - Delaware statutes, contained in Title 25 of the Delaware Code, which regulate the rights, remedies and obligations of landlords and tenants in residential rental units.

Landlord-Tenant Action - an action filed for possession of a rental unit, including both residential and commercial units and mobile homes lots and leases. (This is also referred to as an action for Summary Possession.) The action may be filed by the landlord for possession of a rented property because of unpaid rent or abuse and misuse of the rented property. Tenants may also file if the landlord has violated the landlord-tenant code by wrongfully keeping them out of the rented property.

Levy - the seizure of property by the constable (physical custody by the constable is not usually taken) when a defendant has not paid a judgment awarded against him by the Court.

Lien - a right in the property of another until a debt owed is satisfied.

Long-arm (out of state service) - The law of a state which gives its court’s jurisdiction over people outside of their state. Authority to serve notice to a person.

Misdemeanor - a crime which is less serious than a felony but more serious than a violation. Misdemeanors are categorized as misdemeanor A, misdemeanor B, or unclassified. The Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction over all violations , but only of those misdemeanors which the General Assembly has specifically authorized it to hear.

Motion - An application made to the Court, usually by a party to the case, requesting that some action be taken.

Nolle Prosequi - the abandonment of a criminal prosecution by the State.

Nolo Contendere - a plea of no contest in a criminal case. This plea is treated as a guilty plea for purposes of sentencing, but does not function as an admission of guilt in a later civil case based on the same facts.

Non Est - this means that the person who was to be summoned to receive other court documents could not be served. If service is returned "non est", a JP Civil Form. No. 9 is given to the plaintiff, stating the reason the service could not be made. An "alias" request for service may be filed once more information as to the person's location is obtained.

Non-Suit - a non-suit judgment occurs when a plaintiff, after proper notice, fails to appear at the designated trial date and time.

Notarized - signed by someone authorized to administer oaths, certify documents, and attest to the authenticity of signatures such as a notary public or Delaware attorney.

Nulla Bona - a return of an execution meaning that the Court was unable to find any goods upon which to levy.

Oath - a swearing to tell the truth.

Opinion - a decision of the Court in which the Court's decision in the case is explained.

Parole - a release from prison, upon certain conditions, of a person who has served some of a sentence in prison.

Party - one bringing or being sued in a legal action.

Perjury - a statement made under oath or affirmation known by the maker of the statement to be false.

Perpetrator - the person who has allegedly committed a crime.

Personal Property - any property which is movable and not classified as real property.

Plaintiff - the person who brings a civil case to court.

Plea - the answer of the defendant in a criminal case to the charge(s) brought against him or her. The plea is generally not guilty, guilty, or nolo contendere.

Plea Agreement or Plea Bargain - an agreement between a criminal defendant and the prosecution in which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense and/or to fewer than all of the charges in exchange for a lesser sentence and/or dismissal of some charges.

Pleading - the stating of the facts and legal arguments which support the party's position. The main pleadings are the complaint ( in a civil case, J.P. Civ. Form No. 1) and the answer. ( In a civil case, a written answer is required only in debt and trespass actions using Civil Form No. 7 - in replevin and landlord-tenant cases, the answer is made in court; in a criminal case, no written answer is required.)

Possession (Landlord Tenant) - Judgment awarded by the Court which awards the exclusive right to access, reside in, use or control of a rental unit to the prevailing party against the non-prevailing party. In Delaware, a landlord who prevails in a summary possession action is entitled to a judgment for possession of the premises. This means the landlord may evict the tenant through the Court constable by requesting a writ of possession. It is up to the landlord whether they act on the eviction or not. A writ of possession may not issue for 10 days following judgment, unless an appeal has been filed. A plaintiff shall request the writ of possession within 30 days of judgment unless another time period is agreed to by both parties and approved by the Court or a hearing is held on a motion to revive the writ.

Preliminary Hearing - the hearing by a judge, held in felony cases, to determine whether there is probable cause to hold a person charged with a crime for trial.

Probable Cause - reasonable cause; having more evidence for than against in a criminal case that the accused person had committed the crime charged for purposes of issuing a warrant.

Probation - a criminal sentence, subject to certain conditions which permits a convicted person to be released into the community instead of being sent to prison.

Probation Before Judgment - a procedure whereby the defendant enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendere and the Court defers entry of a judgment of conviction and places the defendant on probation under the terms and conditions that the Court decides are appropriate. If the terms and conditions are met, no conviction is ever entered on the defendant's criminal record. If the terms and conditions are violated, the Court may enter judgment and proceed as if the person had not been placed on Probation Before Judgment. The program applies only to specified misdemeanors and violations. The prosecuting agency must consent to placing a defendant on probation before judgment and there are a number of additional eligibility criteria which apply.

Pro Se - acting on one's own behalf in court (not using an attorney).

Prosecution - the representative of the State who pursues the criminal charges in court. In the Justice of the Peace Court the prosecution may be a police officer, deputy attorney general, or other representative of the State authorized by law to prosecute cases.

Public Defender - an attorney appointed by a court or employed by a government agency who defends accused persons in criminal cases who cannot afford an attorney.

Real Property - generally, land and anything growing on, attached to, or built on the land.

Release on Own Recognizance - release of a criminal defendant without setting bail; the accused is merely bound by their word to appear before the Court at the appointed time.

Replevin - an action filed to get back an item of personal property that is being withheld from them by another person. The Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction to award damages of up to $25,000 in a replevin action.

Satisfaction of Judgment - the discharge of all obligations of the judgment. Once the Defendant has satisfied the Judgment, it is the Plaintiff's responsibility to notify the Court in writing. If the Plaintiff does not do so, 90 days after payment in full, the Defendant may sue the Plaintiff for an amount not to exceed half the judgment.

Secured Bail - when bail is secured, this means that a dollar amount is set and some type of security must be posted. If the accused fails to appear before the Court, the person providing the security may forfeit the security posted. There are three types of secured bail: 1) cash - the total amount of the bail must be posted in cash or by certified check; 2) secured by property - property is posted as security; and secured by money - the accused pays a percentage of the bail to a bail bondsman who secures the bail.

Sentence - the judgment formally pronounced by the judge upon the defendant after conviction in a criminal prosecution, imposing the punishment which is usually in the form of a fine, incarceration, or probation.

Sentencing Order - a document completed and signed by the judge or court showing a defendant's sentence in a particular case.

Service - the delivery of a summons or other legal document.

Statute - a law passed by a legislative body and set forth in the appropriate code of laws.

Stipulated Agreement - Agreement between the parties submitted to a judge for approval, in which a judgment will not be entered unless the stipulated agreement is breached. The Court holds the case open during the period in which the terms of the agreement are to occur. If there is no breach, the case will be dismissed.

Stipulated Judgment - Agreement between the parties submitted to a judge for approval, in which the parties agree for a judgment to be entered rather than a judge making a decision about what judgment should be entered. It may also include agreements as to how or when execution may occur. A stipulated judgment is public record and impacts the judgment debtor’s credit.

Sua Sponte - of its own will or motion; when the Court acts without a party's prompting or suggestion.

Subpoena - an order of the Court to appear before it at a certain date and time.

Subpoena Duces Tecum - an order of the Court to appear before it and bring books, papers, and other things specified in the subpoena.

Substance Abuse Fund - a fund which helps victims of substance abuse.

Summons- a notice sent to a defendant ordering them to appear in court at the date and time specified.

Superior Court - the Delaware court which has exclusive jurisdiction over felonies and almost all drug offenses. In civil matters, the Court's authority to award damages is not subject to a monetary maximum.

Supreme Court (Delaware) - the Delaware Court which receives direct appeals form the Court of Chancery, the Superior Court, and the Family Court.

Summary Possession - an action for possession of a rental unit. (See Landlord-Tenant Action above.)

Third Party Action - an action filed by the Defendant against a party other than the Plaintiff who may be liable for all or part of the damages that the Plaintiff may win from the Defendant.

Trespass Action - an action involving the wrongful, intentional, or negligent actions of a person that resulted in damage to another's property. For example, damages caused by an improper act of another person may involve an automobile as a result of a traffic accident, to a home, lawn, bicycle, or to any other personal property. The Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction to award damages of up to $25,000 in a trespass action.

Unsecured Bail - bail which consists of a dollar amount being set, but no money or property is required to be posted as security. If the accused fails to appear at the appointed time, the accused will owe the amount set to the Court.

Violation - a crime of a less serious nature than a felony or misdemeanor. The Justice of the Peace Court has jurisdiction over all violations.

Victim's Compensation Fund - a fund to assist victims of violent crimes and their families.

Victim's Rights Fund - a fund for victim's rights obtained from a percentage of all fines assessed to a person 16 years of age and over not wearing a seat belt.

Videophone - a fund assessed in all criminal cases to support the purchasing and maintaining of videophone systems.

Witness - a person who gives testimony under oath or affirmation.

Work Referral - an option to "work off" fines and court costs by agreeing to work for an agency to which the defendant has been assigned by probation and parole. The defendant's account is credited the minimum wage per hour for each hour of work completed.