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Court glossary terms: A-B

Learn important glossary terms when it comes to your court matters.

Table of Contents


AB INITIO - Latin for "from the beginning"; e.g., the marriage was void ab initio.

ABANDONMENT - In care and protection and termination of parental rights cases, leaving a child without any provision for support and without any person responsible for the care, custody and control of the child.

ABATE - To reduce, diminish or defer a wrong, grievance or cause of action.

ABROGATE - To annul or repeal a law, rule, or order.


ABSOLUTE DATE - In divorce proceedings, the date the divorce becomes final, which is 90 days after entry of the judgment nisi. Parties are not legally divorced until the judgment nisi becomes absolute.


ABSTRACT OF TITLE - A condensed history of the ownership of land, based on documents in public records, used to determine or establish present ownership.



ACCESSORY - Someone who knowingly and intentionally helps someone else commit or conceal a crime, before or after the commission of that crime. In Massachusetts, the crime has to be a felony. 

ACCOMPLICE - Someone who knowingly participates or assists in the commission of a crime by someone else.

ACCOUNT - A statement of debits and credits or of receipts and payments. In probate, an annual report on the financial status of an estate.


  1. In civil cases: A method of settling a case in which a new contract, agreed to and performed by the parties, is substituted for the old contract which was the subject of the litigation.
  2. In criminal cases: In a misdemeanor case, an agreement between the defendant and he victim, often for restitution, which ends the prosecution of the case.

ACCOUNT ANNEXED - In a summary process eviction case, the rent for which the landlord is suing.


ACT - A law or statute enacted by the State Legislature.



  1. Assistant District Attorney. See DISTRICT ATTORNEY.

AD DAMNUM - Latin for "to the damage." The amount of the plaintiff's claim of damages in a civil case.

AD VALOREM - Latin for "according to the value." For example, an ad valorem tax on an automobile is one where the amount of tax depends on the automobile's value.

ADDITUR - The power of a trial court to increase the amount of a damage award made by a jury as an alternative to granting a new trial.

ADJOURN (v.); ADJOURNMENT (n.) - To postpone or put off a trial, hearing or session of court indefinitely or until a later stated time.

ADJUDICATE - To make a final decision in a legal matter through the judicial process.


  1. In criminal cases: The formal and final judicial finding of "guilty" or "not guilty" (or "delinquent" or "not delinquent" in a juvenile case) by the court.
  2. In civil cases: The judgment or decree issued by the court.
  3. In care and protection cases: The determination by the court whether a child is in need of care and protection.

ADJUDICATORY PROCEEDING - A hearing before an administrative agency to determine rights, duties or privileges under a statute or regulation.

ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCY - A department, board, commission, division or authority of the executive branch of the government responsible for administering the law in a particular area and authorized to make regulations and/or conduct adjudicatory proceedings.


ADMINISTRATIVE INSPECTION WARRANT - A warrant issued for the inspection of a place where illegal items, such as controlled substances, hazardous materials, or other contraband, or records pertaining to them, are kept.

ADMINISTRATIVE LAW - A body of law created by the rules, regulations, orders and decisions of administrative agencies.

ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE (ALJ) - An executive branch official who presides at adjudicatory hearings of administrative agencies, formerly known as a hearing officer. Administrative law judges are not judges within the judicial branch.

ADMINISTRATIVE ORDERS - Orders that regulate court procedures, issued by the Executive Office of the Trial Court, a Trial Court Department, the Appeals Court or the Supreme Judicial Court.

ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURES ACT - A law governing practice and procedure before executive branch administrative agencies.

ADMINISTRATOR (MALE), ADMINISTRATRIX (FEMALE) - In probate law prior to the adoption of the Uniform Probate Code in Massachusetts, a person appointed by a court to administer the estate of a person who dies intestate. Since the adoption of the Uniform Probate Code in 2011, this person is referred to as a "personal representative."

ADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE - Evidence that meets all of the requirements to become part of the record in a case and so be considered by the judge and/or the jury in reaching a verdict.

ADMISSION - In a criminal prosecution, a defendant's acknowledgment of a fact or facts tending to prove guilt. Unlike a confession, an admission falls short of acknowledging all of the essential elements of the crime charged.

ADMISSION TO SUFFICIENT FACTS - A form of plea in which the defendant in a criminal case admits that the Commonwealth can produce sufficient evidence to support a conviction on the offense charged in the criminal complaint.

ADOPTION - The act by which a person takes the child of another into his or her family and makes the child, for all legal purposes, his or her own child.

ADOPTION AGENCY - A private agency licensed by the Commonwealth to place children in pre-adoptive homes and sponsor adoptions.

ADOPTION SURRENDER - A written unconditional consent to the adoption of a child by a person (usually a parent) whose agreement to the adoption is required by law. The person consenting gives up all legal rights to the child, including the right to notice of any legal proceeding involving the child. The surrender must meet the requirements of G.L. c. 210, '2. An adoption surrender is not required if parental rights have been terminated by the court.

ADOPTION AND SAFE FAMILIES ACT (ASFA) - A federal statute adopted in Massachusetts, which makes the Department of Children and Families and the court responsible for making sure that children are safe and that children in foster care are moved to permanent placements as soon as possible. The act requires the court to determine whether the Department of Children and Families made reasonable efforts to avoid removing a child from his or her home, to make a plan for a permanent home for foster children within twelve months of placement in foster care, and to oversee the Department's efforts to carry out the permanent plan for the child. Often referred to as "ASFA."

ADULT - Someone who is no longer a minor. In criminal cases, until recently, an adult is a person age seventeen or older. In September, 2013, the legislature raised the age of adulthood to eighteen in criminal proceedings.


ADVERSARIAL OR ADVERSARY PROCEEDINGS - Proceedings involving two (or more) opposing parties.

ADVERSE POSSESSION - A means of acquiring title to land belonging to another by actually, openly, notoriously, exclusively and adversely using it without the permission of the owner for a legally fixed period of time, twenty years in Massachusetts.

ADVISORY OPINION - A legal opinion given by the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court to the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Governor or the Governor’s Council "upon important questions of law, and upon solemn occasions." Massachusetts Constitution, Chapter III, Article II. Advisory opinions do not result from cases that have been litigated and appealed, so they are not binding precedent in other cases as other appellate decisions are.

AFFIANT - Someone who makes and signs an affidavit under penalties of perjury.

AFFIDAVIT - A written statement of fact made under penalties of perjury.

AFFIDAVIT DISCLOSING CARE AND CUSTODY PROCEEDINGS - A Trial Court form completed by the plaintiff in any case that may affect the custody of a minor (such as a custody proceeding, a care and protection proceeding, or a 209A proceeding.) The purpose of the affidavit is to let the court know about any other case in any court that involves the same minor. Often referred to as a "care and custody affidavit" or an "affidavit of disclosure."


AFFIDAVIT OF INDIGENCY - An affidavit, usually made on a court form, stating that a person’s income is below a level set by law and that he or she is therefore unable to pay certain fees and other expenses related to the case.

AFFINITY - A close relationship that results from marriage rather than from blood, such as the relationship a spouse has to his or her in-laws.

AFFIRMATION (n.), AFFIRM (v.) - To confirm or reassert.

  1. A ruling by an appellate court that the judgment of a lower court is proper and should not be overturned.
  2. A solemn and formal declaration that a statement is true, made under the penalties of perjury but not generally referring to a deity. In certain cases, an affirmation may be substituted for an oath.

AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE - A complete or partial defense to a civil lawsuit or criminal charges that affirms the complaint or charges but raises additional facts which, if proven by the defendant, would defeat or reduce a claim even if the complaint or charges are all proven. For example, in a civil case, an affirmative defense might be that the statute of limitations has passed and so even if everything the plaintiff says is true, the case was brought to court too late. In a criminal case, examples of affirmative defenses are self-defense, insanity, and the statute of limitations. Affirmative defenses must be raised early in the case in the responsive pleadings (e.g., the answer) or be lost altogether.

AGE OF MAJORITY - The age at which a person is considered an adult. The age of majority is generally age eighteen but not always. For example, a person must be twenty-one to purchase alcoholic beverages. See ADULT.

AGENT - A person with authority to act on behalf of someone else, known as the principal.

AGREEMENT - A written document agreed to and signed by all parties in a case which addresses issues in the case and requires the parties to do specific things. It usually becomes part of a judgment or order, which makes it enforceable by the court if a party violates it.

AKA - Also Known As.

ALIAS - Another name a person has used or by which he or she has been known, sometimes used to conceal one's true identity from others.

ALIAS EXECUTION - A duplicate of the judgment in a civil case which replaces the original document if it is lost.



ALLEGATION - A declaration by a party to a lawsuit, made in a pleading and stating what the party intends to prove or, more generally, a claim that is yet to be proven.

ALLOWED - Approved, accepted, sanctioned or authorized by the court; e.g., the motion was allowed.

ALTERNATE JURORS - Jurors selected in addition to the number required to decide a case, who hear all of the evidence along with the regular jurors and are available to replace any regular juror who cannot continue hearing the case or participate in deliberations. The alternates are not identified as such until immediately before the jury starts to deliberate.

ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION (ADR) - A process used to resolve a dispute without litigating it in court, often referred to as ADR. Specific forms of alternative dispute resolution include arbitration, case evaluation, conciliation, dispute intervention, mediation, mini-trial, summary jury trial and early intervention.

ALTERNATIVE SERVICE - A method other than personal service of notifying the defendant or respondent in an action that a complaint or petition has been filed. Alternative service is usually done by publishing a notice in the newspaper or by mail.

AMENDMENT - A change to a pleading, document or statute.

AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT (ADA) - A federal statute establishing the rights of individuals with disabilities.

AMICUS CURIAE - Latin for "friend of the court." A person or organization who is not a party to a case but who is interested in or affected by its outcome and so is allowed by the court to make an argument or file a brief to assist the court in deciding the case.

ANCILLARY SUIT OR PROCEEDINGS - A case or proceeding growing out of and supplementary to another case, such as a case seeking enforcement of a judgment.

ANNOTATIONS - Brief summaries of cases interpreting statutes. These summaries are found in annotated collections of statutes, such as the Massachusetts General Laws Annotated. They tell the reader how the appellate courts have interpreted the statute in cases involving it.

ANNUL - To make void or of no effect. An annulled judgment or judicial proceeding has no force or authority.

ANNULMENT - An order declaring that a marriage or other agreement or contract was invalid or not legal. For example, while a divorce terminates a legal marriage, an annulment establishes that a legal marriage never existed.

ANSWER - In a civil case, the pleading in which the defendant responds to the complaint of the plaintiff.


ANTIPSYCHOTIC MEDICATIONS - Drugs used to treat certain types of mental illnesses. Also referred to as "neuroleptics."


APPEAL - A request to have the decision of a court reviewed and changed by another court, usually a higher court.

APPEALS COURT - Created in 1972, the Massachusetts Appeals Court is an intermediate court of general appellate jurisdiction. Most appeals from Trial Court cases are filed in and decided by the Appeals Court. Some appeals are transferred directly to the Supreme Judicial Court without an Appeals Court decision, and some Appeals Court decisions are again appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. An appeal from a conviction of first degree murder goes directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. See APPELLATE DIVISION.


  1. The act of coming into court, by which the defendant submits to the jurisdiction of the court.
  2. A document identifying the attorney of record. An attorney files an "appearance" to let the court and the other parties know that he or she is representing a specific individual. An unrepresented litigant also files an appearance, to notify the court that he or she is a party to the case but is not represented by an attorney.

APPELLANT - In a case on appeal, the party appealing a lower court's decision or judgment to a higher court, arguing that an error has been made that requires a change in the judgment or a new trial.

APPELLATE COURT - A court which reviews a lower court decision, and has the authority to vacate, affirm or reverse it and/or to return the case to the lower court for further action. In Massachusetts, the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court are appellate courts. Other courts may act as appellate courts in limited situations.

APPELLATE DIVISION - The Appellate Divisions of the District Court Department and the Boston Municipal Court Department hear appeals of civil cases, victim compensation cases and civil motor vehicle infraction cases. A decision of the Appellate Division can be appealed to the Appeals Court. The Superior Court also has an appellate division, a three-judge panel which reviews and can revise prison sentences to ensure greater consistency in sentencing among Superior Court judges.

APPELLEE - In a case on appeal, the party who did not appeal the lower court's decision, and who usually argues to the appellate court that the trial judge acted correctly. The appellee is sometimes referred to as the respondent.

APPLICATION FOR COMPLAINT - In a criminal case, the complaining police department or civilian must apply to the clerk-magistrate for a complaint alleging that a crime has been committed by the defendant. The application includes a police report and an affidavit or other written information supporting the complaint. A show cause hearing is held and if the clerk-magistrate determines that there is probable cause to believe the crime alleged has been committed by the person named in the application, a complaint is issued and a criminal case commenced. See INDICTMENT.

APPOINTMENT - The selection by a court of a person to carry out a specific responsibility; e.g., an appointment as guardian.

APPROPRIATION - Money budgeted by the Legislature for a specific public purpose.


ARRAIGNMENT - The procedure that starts a criminal case. The defendant is informed of the specific charges and a summary of the facts alleged is generally read. If the defendant is indigent, the court appoints counsel. If bail is to be set, it is typically done at arraignment. In some cases, the court may also hear motions or take a plea at arraignment.

ARREARAGE - Money which is overdue and unpaid, often child support or rent.

ARREST WARRANT - An order issued to a law enforcement officer by a judge or clerk-magistrate, requiring the arrest of the person named.


ASSENT - Approval of something already done.

ASSETS - Generally, the entire property belonging to a person, business, or estate. In probate matters, all of the property available to the personal representative for payment of debts, charges, and expenses, and for distribution to parties who are entitled to it.

ASSIGNMENT - Generally, the transfer of property or other legal rights from one person to another.

ASSIGNMENT OF CASES - The system or method that a court uses to designate which judge will hear a case.

ASSIGNMENT OF COUNSEL - The US Constitution requires that an attorney paid by the Commonwealth must be assigned to represent the defendant in a criminal case if the defendant is indigent and unable to afford an attorney, and if the offense with which the defendant is charged could lead to incarceration. See COMMITTEE FOR PUBLIC COUNSEL SERVICES, INDIGENT.

ASSIGNMENT OF JUDGES - The Chief Justices of the various Trial Court Departments assign judges to sit in specific sessions. These assignments are to specific courts or even to specific courtrooms. Assignments may be made in the regular course of judicial business, or to cover vacancies, retirements, vacations or unusually long or notorious cases, or to reduce backlogs at a particular court. A judge may be appointed to one division of a Trial Court Department but assigned to sit in another division of the same Department or, less frequently, assigned to a different Trial Court Department by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court.




ATTACHMENT - A judicial order seizing property to make sure that the property available to pay damages awarded by a judgment. If the property involved is real estate, the attachment is filed in the Registry of Deeds so that anyone reviewing the title to the real estate is made aware of it.

ATTEST, ATTESTATION - Signing as a witness to the signing of a written document by another person.

ATTORNEY - A person admitted to the bar and so is qualified and licensed to represent the legal interests of another person. Also known as a "lawyer" or as "counsel."

ATTORNEY GENERAL - An official whose office represents the Commonwealth, its agencies, officers and commissions in all civil cases in which they are a party or are otherwise interested, or where the acts of departments, officers or commissions are questioned. The Attorney General also prosecutes certain criminal cases. In Massachusetts, the Attorney General is one of six officials elected statewide.

ATTORNEY-IN-FACT - A person authorized by another person to act in that other person's place. An attorney-in-fact may or may not be admitted to practice in the courts.

ATTORNEY OF RECORD - The attorney who has filed an appearance in a case and therefore bears responsibility for handling the case on behalf of a party.

AUDITOR - A person appointed by the court to evaluate the true financial condition of a business or individual.


  1. A procedure by which evidence is made legally admissible in a court proceeding.
  2. Certification of the original or of a copy of a document.

AVERMENT - Something alleged or asserted in a pleading.


BAIL - A method of ensuring that the defendant in a criminal case will appear in court for future proceedings if he or she is released from jail after being arrested. The defendant or someone acting for him or her deposits money with the court or agrees to pay a certain amount (post surety.) The money is forfeited if the defendant does not appear in court as required by the court. The issue in a bail hearing is how likely the defendant is to appear in court in the future. Factors like whether the defendant is employed, the strength of the defendant’s ties to the community and other indicators of what the defendant would lose by failing to appear are also relevant. By law, dangerousness has no role to play in a bail determination, although if the prosecutor thinks the defendant is dangerous, he or she can request a hearing on whether the defendant should be held without bail. See DANGEROUSNESS HEARING.

BAIL BOND - The payment of money by someone other than a criminal defendant, to support a promise that the defendant will appear in court for any hearings related to the case. The person posting the bond loses the money if the defendant (sometimes called the principal) defaults and does not appear in court.

BAIL WARNING - A warning to a newly-charged criminal defendant who is being released on bail that if he or she is arrested again or charged with another crime while the case is pending, bail may be revoked and the defendant sent to jail.



  1. A general term for the legal profession, including attorneys who have passed the bar examination and been licensed by the Board of Bar Overseers to appear before the court to represent others.
  2. An association of members of the legal profession; e.g., the Massachusetts Bar Association.



BENCH TRIAL - The trial of a case before a judge without a jury.

BENCH WARRANT - An order issued by the judge ("from the bench") authorizing the arrest of a person for violating a court order.


  1. Someone who is entitled to receive benefits under a trust or a will.
  2. Someone who is entitled to receive payments under an insurance policy.

BEQUEATH - To give personal property by a will.

BEQUEST - A gift of personal property by a will.


BILL - A draft of a proposed law submitted to the legislature.

BIND - To create a legal obligation.

BIND OVER - To turn a person accused of a crime over to a sheriff or warden for imprisonment pending trial.

BIRTH RECORD OR CERTIFICATE - A formal document with a raised seal from the city or town in which a person is born, recording the facts of the birth.

BOARD OF BAR EXAMINERS - A five-member board appointed by the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court to administer bar examinations and to make recommendations to the justices regarding applicants for admission to the bar.

BOARD OF BAR OVERSEERS - The body responsible for registering attorneys admitted to the bar in Massachusetts by the Supreme Judicial Court and investigating allegations of misconduct against them. The BBO may publicly reprimand a lawyer, although only the SJC has the power to suspend or disbar an attorney.


  1. In criminal cases: See BAIL BOND.
  2. In civil cases: A person who contracts to pay if another person defaults; a surety. The surety can then try to collect from the defaulting principal. Not the same as insurance.

BOSTON MUNICIPAL COURT (BMC) - The Boston Municipal Court Department (BMC) is one of the seven departments of the Trial Court. The BMC has eight divisions, all located in Suffolk County. It has criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors, violations of city ordinances and bylaws, and over certain preliminary proceedings in cases that fall within the jurisdiction of the Suffolk County Superior Court. In addition, the BMC has concurrent jurisdiction with the Suffolk County Superior Court over all felonies punishable by a sentence up to five years in State Prison and over some other felonies designated by statute. The BMC has civil jurisdiction over some cases arising in Suffolk County in which monetary damages or trustee process is sought, including contract and tort actions, as well as in civil cases remanded from the Suffolk County Superior Court. The BMC also has jurisdiction over small claims cases, mental health and substance abuse commitments, summary process proceedings, civil motor vehicle infraction proceedings, supplementary process proceedings, unemployment compensation appeals and abuse prevention restraining orders. The BMC's jurisdiction in Suffolk County is generally the same as that of District Courts elsewhere and statutory references to District Courts usually apply equally to the BMC. The BMC has its own appellate division to hear appeals from civil cases.

BRIEF - A written argument submitted to a court stating the facts and/or law supporting a party's side of a case. Briefs may be submitted to the court by either or both parties to a case or on appeal. A party may also have an opportunity to respond to the other party's brief in a "reply" brief. Appellate courts sometimes request or permit briefs by an amicus curiae. A brief may also be known as a "memorandum of law."

BUDGET - The annual state budget consists of funds appropriated to be spent by units of state government to pay for governmental activities. A supplemental budget provides additional funding for items not included or underfunded in the annual budget. A capital outlay budget provides, usually by the issuance of bonds, for major, long term projects; e.g., building construction.

BURDEN OF PROOF - The duty to prove a fact or facts in dispute.

  1. In criminal cases: The prosecutor has the responsibility to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant committed the offense charged.
  2. In civil cases: In most civil cases, the plaintiff has the responsibility to prove his or her case by a "preponderance of the evidence," meaning that it is more likely than not that the plaintiff's version of the facts is correct. In some kinds of civil cases, an intermediate burden of proof — that of "clear and convincing evidence" — applies, which requires a level of proof that is more stringent than that of a "preponderance of the evidence" but less stringent than "beyond a reasonable doubt."

BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS - A branch of the Department of Public Health that is the central repository for records of births, deaths and marriages occurring in Massachusetts. These records are forwarded to the Bureau by the municipal clerk in the city or town where the event occurred.


  1. A law enacted by a town, which has no effect outside that town.
  2. The internal rules of a business organization.


This is part of: Glossary of Court Terms