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Home Education A beginner’s guide to legalese: Volume I

A beginner’s guide to legalese: Volume I

Lawyers like to sound fancy and confusing, unintelligible, and incomprehensible (Oh dear! There we go again!).

We do it because we want to give you the impression that you are getting your money’s worth since we [are supposed to] know way more than you do about the law! We also do it because we want to appear to be on top of things! And it does work; clients like lawyers who say things they do not understand because it seems the more confusing stuff a lawyer says, the more learned they appear and the more confident the client is in their abilities.

This is not wise though. As a client, you should know exactly what is going on in your case. Your lawyer should explain very clearly how they are going to try and help you and what it means. They are there to serve your best interests and that cannot be done while keeping you in the dark.

But, -back to lawyers and the confusing language we use, more truthfully, we (lawyers) use this confusing language because after years in law school, most of us lose touch with basic English. We are unable to use [a] word where a longer phrase is available. Instead of saying “A man peed” we say “He exercised his natural right to excrete body fluids through his private member.” Instead of saying “I want to eat good food,” we say “I want to ingest some nutrient-laden, high protein, high vitamin, adequately energising food.”

Well, not all of us do this but there are quite a number of lawyers who use big words deliberately to sound more intelligent. But the truth is most of the complicated words we use have simpler meanings hence this beginner’s guide to legalese! Here are a few examples:-


This refers to a matter before the courts. It is also known as a lawsuit.

Plaintiff [ple-i-nti-ff]

In law, a plaintiff can also be known as a claimant or complainant. This is the term used to refer to the person, company or institution that initiates a lawsuit before a court, accusing other people of wrong-doing.


This refers to an individual, company, or institution sued or accused in a court of law. The defendant is sued by the plaintiff.

Letter of demand

This is a letter in which a person who claims to have been wronged (plaintiff) makes a demand or demands to the person that they claim has wronged them (defendant). Assuming you do not want to go to court in order to avoid meeting more expenses such as costs of taking your action to court, you can write a letter of demand. A letter of demand can ask for restitution-compensation or performance of a specific obligation that is owed.

Let us say Linda is renting a flat to Wilson for $300 per month. Wilson fails to pay rent for 6 months and in so doing has violated the lease agreement. Linda can write a letter of demand asking Wilson to pay $1800 outstanding rent calculated at $300 per month by a certain specified date


Restoring or returning something lost or stolen to its proper owner.

Let’s say you sell your house through an estate agent. It turns out the estate agent is a fake one and they try to con you. They produce fake, money transfer papers which you rely on to transfer ownership of the house. Later you discover that the money did not go through but you have lost your house. You can take the Estate Agent and the Buyer to court and claim restitution of your house. That means you will say you want your house back.

Summons [sa-mo-nz]

A summons is a written notification served on a person; requesting the person to appear in court on a specific date to answer to the claims being made against them before a judge or magistrate. A summons is usually served on a piece of paper and the person being summoned is asked to sign for having received it.

In practice most people refuse to sign summons because they think it means they are admitting to committing a crime. No, that is not true. Signing the summons means you have received the message and you have taken note of the request made. It is actually advisable to sign and receive the summons. Signing and receiving the summons enables the person being summoned to quickly see what the other person is saying and respond.

It is also important that once the summons is received, the person being summoned should respond within the time indicated. Usually it will say “Respond within 7 days.” Refusing to respond, when there is proof that the summons was served does not help because a decision will be made in the absence of the summoned individual, what is called a default decision/default judgement.

Subpoena [sa-pi-na]

It is a form of summons which requires a person to attend court. Usually a subpoena is used to request witnesses to come to court. Ignoring a subpoena is a crime and it is advised that anyone subpoenaed should attend court.


A contract is a legally binding agreement. It can be between two or more people e.g. marriage is a contract, a lease agreement is a contract. It can be between companies e.g. a contract of sale. It can be between two countries e.g. a treaty is a form of contract.

Quantum (of damages) [kwa-ntu-m]

This is the calculation/ or measure of damages for a specific action. Quantum is about the amount i.e. how much should be paid. In most cases the quantum of damages given is calculated based on the idea that the wronged person must be placed in the position s/he would have been in had the wrong-doing not occurred.

Watch out for more terms in Volume II of the beginner’s guide to legalese!



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