Objection! Confusing courtroom jargon made clear

Origin: BBC Radio 4

Are you confounded by courtroom communication and longing to learn some legal lingo?

All professions, industries and many other specialist groupings have their own codes, languages and acronyms which can exclude outsiders – intentionally or otherwise. Lucy Read is a family law barrister and chair of The Transparency Project. She joined Michael Rosen and Dr Laura Wright on Radio 4’s Word of Mouth to discuss the language of the courtroom.

Here’s Lucy’s guide to some basic terms…

1. Barristers and solicitors

All barristers and solicitors are lawyers, but a lawyer can’t be both – they are either one or the other.

2. Counsel / Queen’s Counsel (QC)

Counsel is another name for a barrister. When the judge asks for “counsel only” it means she wants to see only the lawyers without their clients. Queen’s Counsel (QC) is a senior barrister who has been given the rank of “QC” as a mark of excellence. Also called a silk (they “take silk” – something to do with the special garments worn by QCs). Any barrister who isn’t a QC is a “junior barrister” no matter how senior they are. Barristers who are experienced but not senior enough to be a QC are called a “senior junior”. Yes, daft isn’t it?

3. Chambers

Chambers are what the rest of the world call offices. Mainly different because barristers don’t (generally) work in a “firm” or company, but are independent sole traders who club together to pay for a room in chambers and share clerks (employed staff who receive enquiries, get in work and allocate it).

 

4. Skeleton

No, it’s probably not what you’re thinking. Skeleton is a written legal argument in outline form.

03d654f87ccdcf562e4753a66ec7d9b0

5. Submissions

Submissions are the lawyers’ speeches at the end of the case (this is sometimes done in writing).

6. Issue

A phrase used by lawyers to mean the things that are in dispute – but only the ones that actually need to be decided for the judge to make a decision. (Cue affronted client when told that something that is very important to them is “not an issue” and hurried explanation that what is important to the client is not always relevant for the judge…).

7. Ex parte

This Latin phrase means “in the absence of a party” and applies in family cases mainly when one party goes to court to get a domestic violence injunction in place before the other party is told (because if warned in advance they might take unwanted action). An “ex parte” hearing also includes a hearing that the other party is aware of but excluded from, such as in a national security context.

8. Without prejudice

This relates to private correspondence and negotiation that the judge should not be told about until after they have decided the case.

9. Prima facie

More Latin. Prima facie means “on the face of it”. Someone who has a “prima facie case” is someone who has presented enough evidence for a case to be looked at, but doesn’t mean the case will necessarily be heard in full once the details have been thoroughly scrutinised.

10. Housekeeping

Housekeeping refers to the administrative tasks that need to be sorted out at the start of a hearing, such as which order are the witnesses going in and checking everyone has the appropriate documentation.

 

11. Part-heard

Part-heard is when a hearing breaks off to a later date half way through the evidence. When the case is part-heard the same advocates and judge have to continue the case until the evidence is finished and the judgment given – which means lots of diary juggling.

12. My learned friend

“My learned friend” is what barristers call one another in court when they have forgotten the other one’s name.

13. My friend

Simply “My friend” is what barristers call solicitors when they are in pompous git mode (making the point that the solicitor isn’t a barrister).

14. Disguised compliance

Disguised compliance is a complicated term social workers use when they think parents are lying but can’t prove it (i.e. when parents disguise the fact they disagree there is anything wrong with their parenting by superficially doing what they are asked to in order to get social workers off their back). “Putting on a show” or “game playing” would work just as well.

15. Paramountcy principle

Paramountcy principle means that a child’s welfare trumps everything else.

16. Paginated bundle

The world “paginated” refers to numbering the pages of a document, and a “bundle” is what lawyers call the files of court papers, put in order and separated into numbered sections so that the judge, lawyers and witnesses can all find the same documents in the same place (in theory). A “paginated bundle” is therefore simply the files of court papers, with page numbers, and separated into numbered sections.

To learn more about the language of the courtroom see Lucy Read’s website, Pink Tape.