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Court glossary terms: C

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

Table of Contents


CALENDAR - A list of all pending cases in a court. Often used interchangeably, but improperly, with "docket."


CANONS OF ETHICS - Rules governing the professional responsibilities and conduct of attorneys, judges, clerk-magistrates and others.

CAPIAS - Latin for "that you take." A warrant for arrest issued from by the judge when a defendant in a civil case or a witness in a civil or a criminal case who has been served with a summons in hand does not appear in court when required to do so.


CARE AND PROTECTION PETITION - A petition filed in the Juvenile Court Department or the District Court Department alleging that a minor has been subjected to abuse or neglect by his or her parents or guardian.

CARE AND PROTECTION PROCEEDINGS - Proceedings conducted by the Juvenile Court Department (or the District Court Department sitting in a Juvenile Court session) to make sure that a minor is protected against physical, mental or emotional injury resulting from the absence of, or neglect or abuse by the person responsible for the child's welfare, or resulting from the inability of that person to provide for the normal physical, mental, and moral development of the child.

CARI - "Court Activity Record Information." A computerized database maintained by the Office of the Commissioner of Probation containing a record of all criminal and some civil court actions related to a particular person. A CARI report lists a particular individual's involvement as a party in all of the courts of the Commonwealth. See CORICJISWMS.

CASE - A legal dispute brought before a court. A case is also referred to as an "action," a "lawsuit," a "cause" or “a matter.”



CASEFLOW - The process by which a case moves through the court system, from the initial filing to final judgment and post-disposition court work.

CASE LAW - Published decisions in individual cases. When issued by an appellate court, the legal principles announced in these decisions are binding authority for lower courts and must be applied in all other cases.

CASELOAD - The number of cases assigned to a judge or session.

CAUSE OF ACTION - The legal issues underlying a case that permit a court to hear it.

CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE - A signed statement by a party making a motion or filing a pleading that all parties to the case have been properly informed that the motion or pleading has been filed, and have been served with a copy of the motion or pleading.

CERTIFICATE OF TITLE - A document attesting the ownership of personal property, e.g., an automobile.

CERTIFIED COPY - A copy of a document, order or record vouched for as an exact duplicate by the person responsible for maintaining the original.

CERTIFY - To vouch for something in writing or attest in writing to the authenticity and accuracy of a document or a copy of a document.

CERTIORARI - Latin for "to be informed of." An order, or writ, by an appellate court directing a lower court to certify and forward the record of a case to the appellate court for review. Such an appeal is sometimes referred to as a "petition for a writ of certiorari," or "cert petition."

CHAIN OF CUSTODY - Documentation of the custody of real evidence, such as drugs or weapons. The party offering an object as evidence in court must establish where the object has been from the moment it was seized until the moment it is offered as evidence in court (e.g., who carried the object from the place where it was found to the evidence locker, who signed it into the locker, who removed it from the locker and when, and who brought it into the courtroom). This helps to ensure that the evidence has not been altered.


  1. Challenge for cause: To ask that a member of a venire be excused because he or she is not legally qualified under the law or the applicable rules to act as a juror in the case.
  2. Peremptory challenge: The right of a party to eliminate a certain limited number of potential jurors from the venire without giving any cause or reason.
  3. Challenge to the array or venire: To question the qualifications of an entire panel summoned for jury duty, usually because of alleged partiality or a problem with the way the panel was selected and/or summoned.


CHANGE OF NAME - A petition for a change of a person’s name is heard in the Probate and Family Court. Court approval is not necessary to change one's name as long as the change is made for an honest purpose and without fraudulent intent. For example, people often change their names without court involvement when they get married. However, sometimes people might want or need an official document acknowledging that they have changed their names.

CHANGE OF VENUE - The transfer of a case from one court to a court in another location, either because it should have been in that other location in the first place; because it is more convenient for the parties or witnesses; or because a fair trial cannot be held in the original court location.


CHARTER - A legislative grant establishing a city or town and organizing its government.

CHATTELS - Personal property, as distinguished from real estate.

CHIEF JUSTICE - In each of the seven Trial Court Departments, one judge is selected by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court to be the Chief Justice responsible for the administration of that Court Department. The Chief Justice of the Trial Court is selected by the Supreme Judicial Court. The Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court each have a Chief Justice who is appointed by the Governor.

CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE TRIAL COURT (CJTC) - The Chief Justice of the Trial Court is appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court and has overall responsibility for Trial Court judicial policy. The CJTC appoints the seven departmental Chief Justices and works with them and the Court Administrator to manage the operations of the Trial Court. See EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF THE TRIAL COURT.

CHILD 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 maintaining care, custody, and control, where reasonable efforts to locate the person responsible for the child have been unsuccessful.

CHILD ABUSE - The intentional or neglectful physical or emotional injury of a child.


CHILD CUSTODY - The responsibility to care for and exercise control over a child. Child custody is awarded in a domestic relations or care and protection proceeding. Custody may be physical (referring to who will care for and control the actual body of the child) or legal (referring to who will make medical, legal, educational and other decisions regarding the child). One parent may have both physical and legal custody of a child; or the two can be split, with one parent having physical custody and the other legal; or one or both of physical and legal custody may be shared by the parents. It is not unusual for one parent to have sole physical custody of a child but to share legal custody with the other parent. The Commonwealth's Department of Children and Families or another party, such as a guardian, may also be awarded legal and/or physical custody of a child if the parents are deemed unfit.


CHILD NEGLECT - The failure of the parent, guardian, or custodian of a minor to provide proper support, education, medical care, physical care, or a fit home environment.

CHILD REQUIRING ASSISTANCE (CRA) - A proceeding involving a child between the ages of six and eighteen who is habitually truant from school, repeatedly fails to obey school rules, repeatedly runs away from home and/or repeatedly fails to obey his or her parent or legal guardian. Previously called a “Child In Need of Services” or "CHINS."

CHILD SUPPORT - In domestic relations cases, payments by one parent, usually the non-custodial parent, to the other parent or a guardian with custody to meet the financial needs of a child, including medical, dental, educational, and child care expenses. The amount is set by agreement or by court order in accordance with Child Support Guidelines issued by the Trial Court. See CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES.

CHILD SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT DIVISION (CSE) – A division of the Department of Revenue (DOR) that provides services to custodial and noncustodial parents including collecting child support payments. CSE attorneys appear before the court to establish paternity and establish, enforce, and modify child support orders. CSE attorneys represent DOR, not either parent.

CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES - Official guidelines promulgated by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, including a mathematical formula used by the court to determine an appropriate amount of child support. Both the non-custodial parent's and the custodial parent's income are considered.


CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE - Testimony that is not based on actual personal knowledge or observation of the facts, but rather is inferred from other facts. For example, if a witness testifies that the defendant came inside in a raincoat, with wet feet and an umbrella that was dripping water, the judge and/or the jury might reasonably conclude that it was raining outside.


  1. The court copy (original) of a "traffic ticket”, which also serves as the original complaint in a civil motor vehicle infraction case.
  2. A reference to a source of legal authority in a court's decision or in a brief submitted to the court by a party. Common forms of citations are to: decisions issued by other courts; statutes; regulations adopted by an administrative agency; treatises written by experts in the particular field being considered; and articles in law reviews and other journals.
  3. A notice issued by the court ordering the person who receives it to respond regarding a pending proceeding. It provides information about the proceeding as well as the consequences of failing to appear or respond to the citation.


CIVIL ACTIONS, CASES OR LAWSUITS - Generally, non-criminal cases concerning the claim of one private individual or entity (such as a corporation) against another private individual or entity or the state to protect a private civil right or to compel a civil remedy, such as the payment of money damages. Examples of civil cases include personal injury cases, consumer protection cases, evictions, and abuse prevention orders.



  1. Laws regarding the establishment, recovery, or redress of private and civil rights, as opposed to criminal laws, which define offenses against the state.
  2. The body of law applied generally in civil society, as opposed to canon (church) law or military law.

CIVIL MOTOR VEHICLE INFRACTION (CMVI) - A violation of the motor vehicle laws, such as a speeding or other traffic ticket. The alleged violator may request a civil hearing before a clerk-magistrate, with the right to a de novo hearing before a judge.


CJIS - Criminal Justice Information System. A federal program operated by the FBI which collects and distributes criminal justice information to the FBI and to qualified law enforcement, criminal justice, civilian, academic, employment, and licensing agencies concerning individuals, stolen property, criminal organizations and activities, and other law enforcement-related data.See CARICORIWMS.


CLAIMANT - One who makes a legal claim.



CLERK-MAGISTRATE - A clerk is an officer of the court who accepts papers like pleadings, motions, discovery, etc., for filing; issues process; and maintains court records. A magistrate is a public officer with limited judicial authority. In Massachusetts, one person may serve both functions, in the capacity of clerk-magistrate, as in the District Court, Boston Municipal Court, Housing Court and Juvenile Court Departments of the Trial Court. Clerk-magistrates are appointed by the governor.

CLERK OF COURTS - The clerk of court in the Superior Court Department is an elected position, similar to the position of clerk-magistrate. The clerk of court is an officer of the court with limited judicial authority and also runs the clerk's office, which accepts pleadings, motions, discovery, etc., for filing, issues process, and maintains and preserves court records. In addition to serving as the clerk for the Superior Court Department in a county, the clerk of courts is also the clerk for the Supreme Judicial Court if and when it operates in that county and, in counties where county government still exists, is also the clerk for the county commissioners. In Suffolk County, two clerks of court are elected, one for civil business and one for criminal business. There is also an elected clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County. (The clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court is not elected but is appointed by the justices of the SJC for a five year term.)




  1. A set of regulations relating to a particular subject matter issued by an administrative agency responsible for the area regulated, such as the Building Code.
  2. A set of statutes, such as the U.S. Code of federal statutes.

CODE OF MASSACHUSETTS REGULATIONS - The collection of the regulations issued by the administrative agencies of the Commonwealth.

CODICIL - A legally binding amendment to a will.

COLLATERAL (adj.) - Generally, "by the side," supplementary.

  1. Collateral consequences: Consequences that arise as an indirect result of conviction of a crime but not as part of the punishment imposed by the convicting court. For example, a collateral consequence of being convicted of certain crimes might be deportation or loss of one=s driver=s license, but those consequences are imposed by agencies other than the sentencing court.
  2. Collateral estoppel: A rule providing that when an issue of fact has been determined by a judgment in one case, the issue cannot be re-litigated in another case between the same parties. Also called "issue preclusion."
  3. Collateral matters: Matters related to but not legally relevant to the question before the court.


  1. In criminal cases: Money or goods pledged to ensure a defendant's appearance in court.
  2. In civil cases: Money or goods pledged to secure payment of a debt.
  3. See DESCENT.

COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL CONDUCT - A nine-member commission that considers allegations of misconduct by judges or of mental or physical disability affecting a judge's performance. Three members are judges appointed by the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, three members are lawyers appointed by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court and three members are non-lawyers appointed by the Governor.

COMMIT - The act of sending a person to a jail, prison, mental hospital or other facility pursuant to an court order.

COMMITMENT - The order by which the court directs:

  1. that a person go to a prison or jail in execution of a sentence (see MITTIMUS); or
  2. that a person go to a hospital because of mental illness.

COMMITTEE FOR PUBLIC COUNSEL SERVICES (CPCS) - The state-funded organization that provides attorneys for indigent defendants who could not otherwise afford representation in criminal cases and other cases in which the state is a party, including CRA, care and protection, termination of parental rights and other child custody cases involving the Department of Children and Families (CPCS represents parents and children in these cases) and mental health commitment cases (CPCS represents the person being committed). CPCS manages the private attorneys appointed by various courts to represent indigent parties and also has staff attorneys who provide legal services.

COMMON LAW - A system of laws which originated in England and has evolved from early days to the present, consisting of old and accepted customs, precedents and court decisions, old English statutes and other unwritten but accepted standards. Common law is the foundation for the legal system in every state of the United States except Louisiana. In Massachusetts, common law is still in effect except where it has been modified or repealed by statute.

COMMONWEALTH - A state. Four US states identify themselves as Commonwealths: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky. Criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the Commonwealth; e.g., Commonwealth v. Smith.

COMMUTATION OF SENTENCE - A reduction of a criminal sentence; e.g., from first degree murder to second degree murder. The Governor may commute a criminal sentence with the advice and consent of the Governor’s Council.


  1. Competent evidence: Evidence that meets all of the requirements for admission into evidence.
  2. Competent witness: A witness who is legally fit and qualified to give testimony in court.
  3. Competent court: A court that has lawful jurisdiction over the case before it. Also referred to as a "court of competent jurisdiction."
  4. Competent to stand trial: A defendant in a criminal case is competent to stand trial if he or she is able to understand the nature and object of the proceedings, consult with an attorney and assist in the preparation of a defense at the time of the trial. A person who is found incompetent to stand trial may be committed to a mental health facility.


  1. In civil cases: Someone who files a complaint, usually referred to as the plaintiff.
  2. In criminal cases: Someone who initiates a prosecution by filing an application for criminal process.


  1. In civil cases: The first paper, or pleading, filed with the court, in which the plaintiff gives the reasons for the suit.
  2. In criminal cases: A written accusation, made under the penalties of perjury, that a crime has been committed and that probable cause exists to believe that the named person is guilty of the offense. A criminal complaint may be filed by the police or by a private party who files an application for criminal process with the clerk-magistrate.

COMPLAINT FOR MODIFICATION - A complaint filed to change an existing order or judgment due to a change in circumstances. For example, complaints for modification are frequently used in domestic relations cases to revise custody arrangements as the children age and their needs change.

CONCURRENT JURISDICTION - The authority of more than one Trial Court Department to hear the same type of case. For example, some crimes can be prosecuted in either the District Court or the Superior Court Departments. Summary process cases can be heard in the District Court or the Housing Court Department or, in some cases, the Superior Court Department. Termination of parental rights hearings can be held in the Juvenile Court Department, the District Court Department sitting in a Juvenile Court session or the Probate and Family Court Department.

CONCURRENT SENTENCES - In cases where a criminal defendant is sentenced to separate terms of imprisonment for two or more convictions, concurrent sentencing allows the judge to order that all sentences of imprisonment to be served simultaneously. The defendant is entitled to release from prison at the end of the longest sentence.

CONCURRING OPINION, CONCURRENCE - In a case being heard by a panel of appellate judges, an separate opinion by a judge who agrees with the decision in a case, but who would base that decision on different reasons from those stated by other members of the panel.


  1. The process by which private real estate is taken for public use without the owner's consent but with just compensation, pursuant to a court order; a forced sale of property to the state or a subdivision of the state for public use; a taking by eminent domain.
  2. The destruction of real estate or other property ordered for public health or safety reasons. In such cases, there is no taking for a public use and thus there is no compensation.

CONFESSION - A voluntary statement, either oral or written, in which a person admits to committing a criminal offense. The statement must include all of the elements of the offense, or it is not a confession but an admission.

CONSANGUINITY - A relationship created by blood. People who descend from a common ancestor, like siblings or cousins, have consanguinity.

CONSECUTIVE INTERPRETATION - A process of converting speech from one language to another in which the speaker of language A speaks, then pauses while the interpreter converts what was said to language B, and vice-versa.

CONSECUTIVE SENTENCE - In cases where a criminal defendant is sentenced to separate terms of imprisonment for two or more convictions, a consecutive sentence requires that one sentence be completed before the next one begins. Also known as an "on and after" sentence.

CONSERVATOR - A person who is appointed by a court to manage the estate of a protected person.


CONSPIRACY - An agreement between two or more people to commit a crime or to do a lawful act in an illegal manner. Conspiracy is a crime in Massachusetts.

CONSTABLE - An officer of a municipality who serves summonses and other forms of process.

CONSTITUTION - A fundamental law establishing and organizing a national or state government and usually setting out the basic rights of citizens and the duties and obligations of the government. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, drafted by John Adams, is the oldest written constitution currently in effect in the world.

CONSTITUTIONAL - A law or government action that is in agreement with the applicable principles of a constitution.

CONSULTATION FEE - A fee sometimes charged by a lawyer to meet with a potential client to discuss the facts of his or her case. The consultation is an opportunity for the lawyer to decide whether to take the case and for the potential client to decide if he or she wishes to hire the lawyer.

CONTEMNOR - One who is in contempt of court.

CONTEMPT OF COURT - An act or failure to act that violates a court order, interferes with the functioning of the court, or disrespects the authority of the court. Contempt of court can be civil or criminal, and either can involve fines and/or jail terms. Civil contempt sanctions are generally meant to make someone obey the court's orders. Criminal contempt sanctions are generally meant to punish past misconduct.

CONTESTED - A case, or a motion or other issue within a case, which is opposed; i.e., the parties cannot reach an agreement regarding it.

CONTINGENT FEE - A fee arrangement often used in personal injury cases in which the lawyer is paid a certain percentage of the money received by the client if the client wins or settles his or her case. If the client loses his or her case the lawyer does not receive a fee. Whether the case is successful or not, the client may still be responsible for the payment of costs incurred in bringing the case. In Massachusetts, a written fee agreement is required in a contingent fee case.

CONTINUANCE - Postponement of an action pending in court.

CONTINUANCE WITHOUT A FINDING (CWOF) - In a criminal case, if a judge finds there is enough evidence to support a finding of guilt, he or she can continue the case for a period of time without making a guilty finding. The charges will be dismissed without a finding of guilt at the end of that period if the defendant complies with any conditions imposed. Often referred to as a "CWOF" (pronounced "quaff").

CONTRACT - An agreement between two parties that creates a legal obligation to do or not do something because the parties have exchanged promises (e.g., I will pay you if you paint my house.) The agreement may be oral or written or implied by the parties' actions.

CONTRACT NOT TO COMPETE - An agreement between an employer and an employee that the employee will not perform work for the employer's competitors.

CONVERSION - The wrongful exercise of ownership or control over goods which belong to another.

CONVEY (v.), CONVEYANCE (n.) - The transfer of title to property from one person to another, or the documents which effect the transfer of title to property.


  1. (v.) To find one guilty of a crime.
  2. (n.) One who has been convicted of a crime.

COPYRIGHT - Legal protection given to someone who produces intellectual property (an author, musician, artist and the like) to prevent the unauthorized use or copying of an original work by others.

CORI - Criminal Offender Record Information. Data maintained by the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services detailing an individual=s criminal history, including charges and dispositions. A CORI report is a computer printout of an individual's CORI data. See CARICJISWMS.



CORPORATION - A business entity treated by the law as a person in some respects. A corporation can buy, own and sell property, enter into contracts, sue and be sued and be held civilly and criminally responsible for its acts. Corporations act through officers, agents and/or employees. An investor in a corporation can be held liable for the corporation's debts only to extent of his or her investment.

CORPUS DELICTI - Latin for "the body of the crime." The corpus delicti is what the prosecutor must prove (that a crime was committed) before introducing an admission or a confession into evidence.

COSTS - Many cases involve expenses in addition to attorney’s fees. These expenses are often referred to as "costs" and include such things as filing fees, service of process, deposition costs, expert witness fees, investigator fees, photocopy and telephone expenses, fees to obtain copies of medical records, etc.

COUNSEL - An attorney; one who gives advice, especially legal advice.

COUNTERCLAIM - A claim that the defendant asserts against the plaintiff in a civil case.

COUNTY - A geographical or political unit within a state. There are fourteen counties in Massachusetts: Barnstable, Berkshire, Bristol, Dukes, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Nantucket, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk and Worcester. In some departments of the Trial Court, particularly the Superior Court and the Probate and Family Court, and to some extent the Juvenile Court, the divisions are organized by county. County government has been abolished in some counties and is of diminishing importance in others.

COUNTY COURT - The single justice session of the Supreme Judicial Court.


COURT ADMINISTRATOR - The person appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to head the Office of Court Management (OCM), manage the non-judicial administrative functions of the Trial Court, and provide support to the judges, clerks, probation officers and clerical staff who work daily to deliver justice in the Commonwealth. OCM provides services to all Trial Court departments in the following areas: Court Capital Projects, Facilities Management, Fiscal, Human Resources, Information Services, Support Services, and Security. The Court Administrator also works closely with the Chief Justice of the Trial Court in the Executive Office of the Trial Court. See EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF THE TRIAL COURT.

COURT OFFICER - Court officers and associate court officers are responsible for order and safety in the courthouse. Together with the judge, court officers maintain order in the courtroom. They also operate the lock-up and escort people in custody through the building. Court officers also handle jurors, signing people in as they arrive for jury duty, explaining their obligations to them, escorting groups of jurors around the courthouse and otherwise attending to their needs. Associate court officers staff the entrances to each courthouse, operate metal detectors, and provide assistance to the public entering the courthouse. In other jurisdictions, court officers are frequently referred to as "bailiffs."



COURT RULES - Rules adopted by a court to govern its procedures. In Massachusetts, rules are issued by the Supreme Judicial Court, the Appeals Court, the Trial Court and each of the Trial Court Departments. Court rules of court must be approved by the Supreme Judicial Court.

COURT SERVICE CENTER - Court service centers provide information and assistance (but not legal advice) to self-represented litigants, attorneys, and members of the public. They improve access to justice and the efficiency of court operations by helping self-represented litigants in particular to understand and prepare for the court process.



CREDIBLE - Believable; worthy of belief or confidence; trustworthy.

CRIME - A violation of criminal law, punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine.

CRIMINAL - One who has been convicted of a crime.

CRIMINAL CASE - A lawsuit or prosecution brought by the Commonwealth or the federal government against a person or corporation as defendant, to determine whether the defendant has violated a criminal law.


CRIMINAL LAW - The body of law that forbids certain actions or conduct and provides for the punishment of those who engage in the forbidden actions or conduct.


CROSS-APPEAL - In a case on appeal, the appellee's request that the court review aspects of the lower court's decision that were not raised by the appellant, seeking to reverse, vacate, or modify those aspects, while affirming the rest of the decision.


CROSS-CLAIM, CROSS-COMPLAINT - In a civil case involving multiple plaintiffs or multiple defendants, a claim brought by one plaintiff against another plaintiff, or by one defendant against another defendant.

CROSS EXAMINATION - The questioning of a witness at trial or deposition by a party other than the party who called the witness. Cross examination tests the truthfulness of the witness's testimony and the credibility of the witness, and further develops the testimony. See DIRECT EXAMINATION, REDIRECT EXAMINATION.

CUSTODIAL PARENT - The parent having physical custody of a child.

CUSTODY - Care and control of a thing or person. A person who is "in custody" is imprisoned or otherwise physically detained. "Child custody" refers to who has the legal right to make decisions regarding a child's care and/or who has physical control over the child.



This is part of: Glossary of Court Terms