Language of the law decoded: The litigation edition

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The revered Wigapedia returns to Legal Cheek for his 2017 jargon buster

Litigation is a complex and confusing process. The rocky road to justice is made all the more mystifying (for both litigants and lawyers) when the court system applies its own meaning to established legal words and phrases.

Thankfully, Wigapedia is on hand with his latest legal jargon translator to help us make better sense of it all.

Word or phrase

What it actually means

BriefA document which very rarely is.
JusticeSearch term not found.
InstructionsA document telling you that you are entirely familiar with the case having advised by telephone 18 months ago; here are a random selection of papers, so please advise/go to court/save us from ourselves.
Listed for trial at 10.30amIf we can find a judge and the three matters before you, also listed at 10.30am, don’t run over, you may have a trial. Or maybe not.
Pro bonoWorking without payment, for the lead singer of U2.
ServiceA bit like ‘pass the parcel’, but where defendants think up increasingly convoluted ways of avoiding receiving your claim.
The overriding objectiveThe ‘get out of jail free’ card for any struggling judge. Not to be confused with ‘justice’.
Witness statementThe one document produced in court that you can be sure has not been written by the person whose name appears at the top, and who has signed it.
De KeyserPronounced ‘De Keyser’.
ExpertSomeone paid more than most of the lawyers to attend court. Entirely independent. Co-incidentally repeatedly prepare reports and give evidence which is entirely supportive of the party who happens to be paying them.
Re-examination“Are you sure you really meant to say that? Really?”
Court officeA place of mystery and silence. Rumoured to be open during the third full moon after the Solstice. No one has yet seen it, but like the Yeti, the stories stubbornly persist.
Court serviceInteraction whereby you pay the court £10,000 and in return they agree to lose your file and ignore your letters, but do promise to try to respond to your urgent emails within a fortnight (or so). Upon any minor breach of any rule, the ‘court service’ will threaten to bar you from utilising their service entirely, but retain your fee payment.
ProportionalityMechanism by which successful litigants end up funding a considerable proportion of their own legal fees which were only made necessary by the failure of the losing party to accept liability and pay what they owed. Works heavily in favour of wealthy litigants and corporations. Does not apply to the ‘court service’ (see above).
Courtroom technologyA contradiction in terms. Limited to non-functioning DVD players and a socket into which to plug a laptop. Nothing that has been remotely considered to be ‘technology’ since about 1994.
Courtroom etiquetteA polite term for overt barristerial obsequiousness towards the judge. Rarely reciprocated.
The bundleA collection of poorly copied documents, badly held together by a broken lever arch file, 90% of which will never be mentioned in court. However the documents are collated, it won’t be in a bundle.
PhotographsDocuments which are liberally interspersed at random throughout the trial bundle (see above) — usually multiple times. Almost always show the object or scene concerned, as it would be seen on a very dark night, while wearing welding goggles.
The standWhat the witness box used to be called before back-to-back American court room dramas were on every TV channel.
Inter-party correspondenceComprises a large portion, if the not the bulk of, the trial. Usually justified by being included ‘just in case’.
The insurerA bit like an Oracle or God of Wrath. A mysterious entity controlling things, often cited as the reason a better offer can’t be made: “Sorry about that. It’s the insurers you see…” May well be the subject of worship in certain primitive societies, like Basildon.
Neutral chronologyA table of vaguely relevant dates and events, especially picked to make the other side look bad, alongside snarky commentary.
Time estimate for hearingThe only length of time you can safely bet your house that the hearing definitely won’t take.
Persuasive submissionsLosing submissions.
Court feesA substantial non-refundable sum (up to £10,000) paid by the claimant to the court for a court service. In return, the claimant gets:
• A receipt
• A ‘promise’ by the court to read any emails he sends them within 14 working days
• A non-response to all letters
• Multiple instances of the court ‘losing the file’
• A non-staffed court office
• An understaffed judiciary
• Adjourned, truncated and ineffective hearings
• Very occasionally, a trial
• But very definitely, no service.
Caveat emptoreBay in a nutshell.
ListingsA wish list (usually from yesterday) on which the matter in which you are appearing may or may not appear. Inclusion on the list does not guarantee or even imply you will actually get to appear in front of an actual judge.
Robing roomA little haven where solicitors and clients can’t get to you and you can therefore bitch about both to colleagues at will, and at length. Place in which all barristers proclaim to anyone in earshot that the case they are dealing today is ‘a bit of nonsense’ (implying that they are ordinarily dealing with much more weighty and important matters elsewhere).
Scale planPoorly drawn artistic interpretation of the scene of the accident or event concerned, heavily labelled with hard-to-read comments and random arrows. Invariably superseded by sketch knocked up by witness during the course of their evidence.
‘Where Mr Smith differs from the evidence of Mr Jones, I prefer the evidence of Mr Smith’Mr Jones is an incorrigible liar.
Surveillance videoA surreptitious recording of someone walking down the street (often the claimant’s brother), which can’t be shown in court due to ‘courtroom technology’, but is definitely not on a video.
The judgeThis can mean a number of things:
• An actual judge
• A retired judge who’s come back for a few days
• A part-time judge
• A district judge (part-time, retired or full-time)
• Or perhaps someone in the office who’s taken a break from filing to make and send out a few orders to clear the backlog.
UsherLike public loos: never around when you need one and very hard to find at the best of times.
WitnessesPoor saps who will be required to wait around for an eternity having waited years for a trial date, only to be told 50% of the time that they are ‘not needed’ or if they are called, asked questions of bewildering complexity with multiple caveats and parentheses, expected to recall details of a fleeting event five years before and then released without having any idea why they were there or what any of this means.
Evidence-in-chiefWhere you try to fill in the gaps in the hopeless witness statement your solicitor has drafted (apparently in a different case entirely).
Your clientThe principal obstacle between you and winning the trial.

Wigapedia (aka Colm Nugent) is a barrister at Hardwicke in Lincoln’s Inn in London.


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