Follow TV Tropes


Stock Legal Phrases

Go To
Could be worse. Antoine could have grilled her on the stand instead.

Strong Bad: This is a subpoena! I summons Exhibit 4-B to my chambers!
Homestar: Sustained! [hits self with a gavel]

The stock phrases and legal terminology likely to be used in any trial scene.

  • "All rise!" Said by the bailiff when the judge(s) enter(s). (In the US). Today, many courts will only do this twice a day—once when the judge gets on the bench for the morning session at the beginning of the day and once when the judge gets on the bench for the afternoon session after lunch. If the judge takes a break during a session (whether it be to confer with the attorneys or his/her law clerk, to consult another judge for advice, or simply to use the facilities), it's not uncommon for the bailiff to say "please remain seated" when the judge returns to keep things moving along.
  • "Be upstanding (in court)" is the British version of "All rise!" "Court rise!" is also a common British version.
  • "Are you aware of the penalties for perjury?" Lawyer-ese for "I know you're lying." Similarly, there's: "May I remind you you are under oath?" Hilariously, in Real Life, asking this question is just begging to get hit with an objection for relevance. If the witness is lying, you have to show it, you can't imply it.
  • Advertisement:
  • "Bailiff, restrain that man."
  • "Beyond a reasonable doubt." / "So that you are sure" (In England the former was replaced by the latter because juries often had difficulty establishing what a "reasonable doubt" was.)note 
  • "Chambers, Your Honor!" (The attorney wants to discuss a legal point in the Judge's office to complete privacy for a prolonged amount of time. Note that saying it this way would be considered extraordinarily rude unless the lawyer was so visibly shocked or overcome that she/he couldn't come up with something more coherent; a more typical way would be "Your Honor, I respectfully ask permission to discuss this issue outside the courtroom.")
  • "Circumstantial Evidence." In TV Land, this is synonymous with weak evidence. In Real Life, many things people might think of as direct evidence (such as the cliché "smoking gun") are actually legally classified as circumstantial evidence. Either can be strong enough to convict on its own, and neither intrinsically has more weight than the other.
  • Advertisement:
  • "In my chambers, now! Both of you!" (The sort of shenanigans that provoke this in TV Land are generally way past the Mistrial Event Horizon.)
  • "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" The last clause is occasionally dropped in some situations. There are innumerable variations on the swearing-in. In some places even the various court clerks (who administer the oaths) may have different spiels in the same courthouse.
    • The United States introduced "affirming" in the 1780s to answer the objections of those whose religious convictions wouldn't let them say the "God" part or swear on The Bible, particularly Quakers (a powerful group in the powerful state of Pennsylvania).note  To this day, Pennsylvania is home to one of the most variant swearings/affirmings-in ("Do you swear or affirm that you will tell the truth in the matter now trying?") even though the Quakers have long since lost their political influence.note 
      • In Ayn Rand's play Night of January 16th, a judge forces Karen Andre to affirm despite her objecting as an atheist to the "so help you God" part.
    • The UK courts comment that "oath cards and holy books are available for several religions". You can also miss out the 'God' bit by choosing to affirm.
  • "Does the defendant plead guilty or not guilty?" / "How does the defendant plead?"
    • "Guilty," the defendent agrees with the indictment and will not contest it in the legal proceeding.
    • "Not Guilty," the defendent disagrees with the indictment and the Prosecutor is now tasked with proving the accusation in court.
  • "Don't lead!": Unique to British trials (and some Commonwealth jurisdictions). Rather than make a formal objection to a leading question made of a non-hostile witness (see below), British barristers directly admonish their colleagues at the Bar not to do so. (Practically every episode of Rumpole of the Bailey has an example—most often by the prosecution against Rumpole, though examples where Rumpole admonishes the prosecution are almost as numerous, much to Rumpole's pleasure.)
  • "Fruit of the poisonous tree": Evidence that was obtained by an illegal action by an investigator must now be considered inadmissible and must be removed from the prosecution's indictment of the client, which can mean that the defendant's arrest is now also voided and the person is free to go.
    • Technically, this refers to not the illegally obtained evidence itself, but to any evidence that derives from it, even if that evidence was obtained legally. If investigators find out via an illegal wire tap that the evidence is in Locker 475 at the train station, even if they then get a warrant to search that locker, whatever's inside is inadmissible.
    • There's also a proviso: if the prosecutor can prove that the illegally obtained evidence would eventually be discovered legally anyway ("inevitable discovery"), they can get it re-admitted. If the police attacked a suspect until he admitted where the murder weapon was hidden in the park, and the weapon was therefore inadmissible, if the prosecutor can show that the police were already combing the park looking for that particular murder weapon, and it wasn't hidden but easily seen, they can contest the weapon being thrown out. Naturally, this is very difficult to prove.
  • "Habeas corpus" is (at least in the U.S.) a writ or summons that requires someone in authority holding an imprisoned person to bring that person to court to determine if they should be kept in custody or released. In Real Life this is invoked by the defense almost 100% of the time, to try to prevent a trial. It's the closest thing to a Real Life "Get out of Jail Free" Card (if the paperwork isn't in order.)
    • Habeas corpus is a right of all imprisoned citizens, and designed to give them a chance of representation, so that the government cannot imprison people indefinitely. You always have the right to your day in court, no matter what anyone says. At least in the US. And as long as you're not an enemy combatant...
      • There are other cases as well. The US Constitution lists the circumstances under which it can be suspended, but is a bit more vague on exactly who has the power to do so. Lincoln did it during the Civil War, and to resolve the question of whether he had the right to do so or not Congress passed a law basically saying "it's okay with us."
    • Habeas corpus in the U.S. today is most commonly used by prisoners who have already been convicted, using the writ as a form of request for post-conviction relief. The argument is that if the trial and sentencing were unconstitutional or otherwise contrary to law, they should be released. This is most often done when there is newly discovered exculpatory evidence or new allegations of incompetence by trial defense counsel. In such cases, the prisoner is either a federal inmate or a state inmate who has been denied post-conviction relief under state law and believes the state courts were wrong about any federal constitutional claims.
  • "Has the jury reached a verdict?" ("We have, Your Honor.") ("What say you?")
  • "I plead/take the Fifth." This refers to the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, specifically the provision that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." Also heard as "I hereby invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege" or "I refuse to answer on the ground it may tend to incriminate me." Technically, a jury is not supposed to regard taking the Fifth in any prejudicial light, but human nature being what it is, it's impossible to make sure that they follow that. Often subverted by people yelling the incorrect amendment.
    • This one is rarely seen in Real Life courts, as the defendant doesn't have to testify and the prosecution is not allowed to suggest they should. However, if you do agree to testify, then you are open to all questions. Therefore, only a witness would say such a thing and it is rather rare to have a witness being asked questions that they might not need to answer. This is most often seen when answering questions in front of Congress, as they put you in the chair and have you say this just so the Congressperson can grandstand about how guilty you must be.
      • Or, of course, if one of the witnesses other than the defendant was a party to the crime, or committed some other crime that comes up during cross-examination. However, considering the extent of the pre-trial preparation these days, any competent lawyer (on both sides) will avoid any such question. Unless it might help the defense, but at that point the prosecution will likely avoid calling the witness (and the rules for the defense calling a witness makes it a little more difficult for them to ask such a question).
    • Some people apparently try to 'take the fifth' in Canada, forgetting that it's a different country. If you want to be technical, it's the "eleventh" there.
    • But in Real Life, in Canada, the witness will still be required to testify. It's just that the testimony cannot be used in any legal proceedings against the witness.
    • Oddly it pops up in Persona 4, as an arguable Translation Convention for the equivalent protection against self incrimination in Japan.
    • Parodied in an xkcd strip where Black Hat Guy pleads the third amendment during a congressional hearing.
      "You refuse to quarter troops in your house?"
      "I have few principles, but I stick by them."
    Chappelle's character: "I plead the fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiif!"
  • "I rest my case." (The prosecution or defense believes they have adequately presented their arguments and examined necessary witnesses. Basically, they're done.) Note that when the prosecution rests, they still have the option of rebuttal testimony after the defense rests, so they're not really done. However, when the defense rests, they are definitively done (except for cross-examination of rebuttal witnesses, or if the judge allows surrebuttal).
    • In one episode of the The Simpsons, the lawyer Lionel Hutz brainlessly spouts this phrase after presenting confusing evidence that the man his client is suing has the "evil gene" and is therefore "innocent of not being guilty." "You rest your case?" repeats the judge incredulously. "Oh, I thought that was just a figure of speech," Hutz replies, adding "case closed."
  • "I'd like to call in a new witness." In Real Life you can't bring in an undisclosed witness, sorry. You can bring in one you disclosed but weren't able to contact until just now, with the judge's permission. (And your story had better pass the laugh test if you want that permission.) Important exception, though: in "street-level" civil hearings (usually small claims and the like, though it happens in family court, as well) where the parties are largely self-represented and do not know the law and there is usually no formal pretrial discovery/disclosure, this is actually a relatively common occurrence. Since these street-level cases form the bulk of civil actions, but no lawyer appears in most of them, this may happen more often than many lawyers realize.
  • "If the Court pleases" or "If your Lordship pleases": Exactly what it sounds like, it can be a genuine marker of respect, an off-the-cuff bit of verbal filler, or a bit of snark at the judge. The "your Lordship" version is of course only used when the judge is addressed as "my Lord" (most typically a British High Court judge).
  • "I'd like to mark this as Exhibit A."
  • "I'll allow it" (The judge has just permitted a motion by a participating attorney to go ahead)
  • "It's black letter law" (The legal point the attorney is making is specifically written in an earlier judgment/the statute book)
  • "Let the record reflect/show that [something has happened which wasn't captured in the transcript, like the witness pointing at the defendant.]"
  • "I can no longer represent my client in this matter." (Lawyer speak for, most often, "My client specifically asked me to lie to the court," although it can also mean "My client and I have just discovered we have a conflict of interest," "My client is a fucking asshole and I hate him and I just can't work with him anymore," "My client up and disappeared and I've been trying to find him for months but still have no clue where he is," or "My client refuses to pay me.")
  • "May I approach the bench?". In Canada lawyers can do this without asking, but in most other Commonwealth jurisdictions and the United States you should ask if you're allowed to do that. (That being said, the judge hardly ever denies permission to approach unless it would create a "traffic jam" with court staff or opposing counsel, in which case the response is usually "once so-and-so has returned to their seat.")
  • "May it please the court..."
  • "No further questions, Your Honor."
  • "Objection!" The Magic Franchise Word of the Ace Attorney games. Some common objections:
    • "Argumentative": The question or statement spoken is not establishing or examining a fact, but is spoken merely to argue with the witness or counsel.
    • "Hearsay" (testifying about what someone else said they saw, instead of what you saw yourself). Hearsay is allowed in certain conditions. Dying Declarations (the last words of a person who knows they're dying) are popular exceptions. Reading in pre-trial discovery testimony is a much harder prospect, but is allowed in certain cases where the witness has testified before the trial itself and is now unavailable due to unforeseeable events (death, usually), though it can also be (and more often is) used to impeach the witness (i.e. "Interesting you say ABC now. Why do you say that, when you said XYZ at your deposition?"). Also, interestingly, the statements of a party to a case are not considered hearsay...when introduced by the other side.
    • "Assumes facts not in evidence" (asking a question with a built-in assumption, like "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?")
    • "Prejudicial" (testimony that would cause the jury to dislike the defendant enough that they might chose to convict him, even though it doesn't really go to prove guilt. For instance, the fact that the defendant has a criminal record.) In Real Life, objecting that something was "prejudicial" would make the judge laugh and say, "of course it is, that's why he's introducing it." The objection is "the prejudicial value substantially outweighs the probative (proof) value."
    • "Badgering the witness" (attacking the witness in order to confuse or browbeat them)
      • One Dave Barry column has the lawyer using a wolverine on the witness. Since it wasn't a "badger" (another mustelid) the objection was overruled.
      • An issue of Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics) had the lawyer (in this case Antoine), going overboard in his questioning and asking the witness (Amy Rose) about overcharging a badger in joining a fan club, leading the judge (Princess Sally) to tell him to "stop badgering the witness".
    • "Witness is not an expert" (Witnesses can only state facts, like what they saw, and certain limited opinions about matters of common experience, like whether someone was drunk.note  An expert witness can give opinions about other matters, like how long it was between when the victim died and when the police found them, etc.). Getting someone qualified as an expert is either an easy process (a few questions and then asking the court to recognize their expertise), or not contested (prosecutor and defense counsel agrees to the expertise beforehand, and the court is so notified).
    • "The Prosecution/Defense is leading the witness" (The lawyer is asking questions in such a way that he is feeding facts to the witness or otherwise indicating what answer he wants the witness to give.) Note that during cross-examination, leading is generally allowed, on the grounds that the person testifying is not on the side of the lawyer doing the questioning, and might need some additional pointers to reach the conclusions needed. In British trials, this might be substituted with a less formal admonition by the opposing barrister directly to their counterpart along the lines of "don’t lead." See hostile witness below.
    • "Relevance" (the lawyer is asking questions that have little to no bearing on the scope of the case)
    • "Speculation" (the lawyer is asking the witness to essentially guess about something: "What did it look like the victim did for a living?")
    • "The witness is not on trial here!" (aka stop grandstanding for the jury. The defense is allowed certain leeway to question a prosecution witness, but accusing them of the crime is usually right out—the main exception being when the defense is explicitly that the defendant didn't do it, this specific other person did, and the defendant is being framed.)
    • "Irrelevant" or "immaterial": the question or statement has nothing to do with the case at hand.
    • "Beyond the scope" (during cross-examination, the lawyer asks the witness a question about a topic not covered in direct examination. Can also be used during redirect in regards to a topic not brought up during cross.)
    • For totally frivolous reasons. See That Was Objectionable.
    • In reality, in most courts, the attorney would most often cite to the particular rule of evidence. For instance, an objection on the grounds of relevance in U.S. federal court would be along the lines of, "Objection, Your Honor, as to relevance under Rule 402," to which a reply might be "Your Honor, it's relevant under Rule 406; it shows that defendant habitually put his keys in his left front pants pocket."
    • After the lawyers argue the merits of an objection, the judge will say "(objection) sustained," meaning the judge thinks the objection has merit, and the question or statement has to be moved past without answering or clarifying it. "(Objection) overruled" means the judge thinks the objection doesn't have merit, and things continue as if the previous objection hadn't happened.
  • "—or I will hold you in contempt of court." This exists in both the US and the UK. Jail time is an option in both jurisdictions, although fines and cautions are more common.
  • "Order in the courtroom!" The Judge says this while banging a gavel. Disruption of the order in the courtroom might result in expulsion from said room, or even being held in contempt. This is mostly American. In more comedic works, one can expect someone to respond to this with a food order.
    • "I will clear this court!" is the escalation of this.
  • "Perhaps this will refresh your memory." This one's pretty much pure Hollywood. In Real Life, both sides have to disclose to each other what evidence they will be presenting (with a few very specific exceptions) before the trial. Also, a Smoking Gun is likely to lead to a plea bargain (in criminal cases) or settlement (in civil cases) up front, saving a lot of hassle.
    • There is one situation where surprise evidence is somewhat often introduced—for impeachment (i.e. evidence that undermines the credibility of the witness). Impeachment evidence is usually hearsaynote  and is often so weakly relevant or so prejudicial that the other side won’t bother to try to get it in (as a waste of limited time and resources). However, lawyers often keep potential impeachment in reserve in case an opposing witness "opens the door" to bringing the evidence in, typically by saying something that contradicts a previous statement.
    • Another space where surprise evidence is a common occurrence is in the more "street-level" civil courts—small claims, landlord-tenant, and to a lesser extent family courts. These courts often operate on more relaxed rules of evidence, especially when it comes to prior disclosure of evidence. Most litigants in these courts are self-represented, so many formalities are dispensed with. As a result, surprise Smoking Guns are more common than you might expect. (It’s not unusual for a litigant to have evidence with them that conclusively resolves the case without them even knowing it.) The same is true at many "street-level" administrative hearings as well.
  • "Permission to treat the witness as hostile?" Once a witness has contradicted himself or changed his testimony from pre-trial discovery, this gives the attorney the right to be more abrasive and direct in their line of questioning during direct examination, and avoid an objection for badgering the witness.
    • Specifically, it allows the attorney to ask leading questions. When an attorney calls a witness to present evidence for them, the witness is presumed to be friendly, and so the attorney can only ask open-ended questions. If the witness starts re-canting earlier statements or lying on the stand, this allows the lawyer who called him to force the witness to say what he needs under oath (or perjure themselves).
      • By definition, during a cross-examination, a witness is considered hostile (they're not on the questioning lawyer's side, after all).
  • "Silence in court!" This is very British.
  • "That testimony is to be stricken from the record. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury (reason why the evidence is illegal) as such you are to disregard this evidence and ignore it when conducting your deliberations." (See Disregard That Statement.)
  • "Withdrawn" (Said by an attorney to supposedly retract a statement before it is stricken from the record.) In most cases in Real Life, simply saying "withdrawn" isn't enough. You could be subject to penalties or fines. If you have a reputation for constantly making inflammatory statements (see Jack McCoy), you won't have any leeway at all, and you're likely to hurt your case by trying to pull this off. You'll also push yourself closer and closer to mistrial with each offense. It is also used in a less confrontational context when a lawyer admits that opposing counsel's technical objection to a question (usually in the wording, and most usually that the question is leading) is correct; this is done to show the judge or opposing counsel the courtesy of not picking needless fights, and is usually followed by a more carefully-worded version of the same question.
  • "Therefore, be it resolved..."
  • "This session is adjourned to ..."
  • "Witness, please answer the question." (If a witness is asked a question on the witness stand, they don't have the option of not answering. They must either answer the question or provide a reason why they can't (Fifth Amendment being popular). Simply stalling or avoiding the question can result in contempt of court or even perjury charges.)
  • "Would this be a convenient moment?" A British judge's way of saying "Barristers, shut your cakeholes. It's lunchtime."
  • "You don't have to answer that." (A judge can direct the witness not to answer if an objection to the question is sustained. The lawyers generally can't (and it's a punishable offense), but will try to do so anyway, at least on TV. Note that lawyers can instruct the witness to keep quiet while the judge rules on an objection, especially if the witness is their client.)
  • "Send him down" - very British, being "sent down" means to be send to gaol. Not often heard anymore because its cartoonish, but still a useful shorthand for "this poor bastard is in deep trouble."