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Common Law Terms

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

Book called "Legal Terms" in a row of small claims court related books.

Common Legal Terms




Creditor (Judgment)

Debtor (Judgment)

Additional Legal Terms



Bank levy


Breach (Anticipatory)

Cause of Action (Claim Type)


Conditional Settlement




Date of Incorporation

Debtor (Judgement Debtor)

Debtor’s Examination

Default Judgment


Demand Letter


Dismissed With Prejudice

Dismissed Without Prejudice


Fictitious Business Name

Financial Statement (EJ-165)


Installment (payments)

Interrogatories: Questions that are formally submitted in writing by one party in a legal case (e.g., the plaintiff) to another party in the case (e.g., the defendant), which are required by law to be answered. (Example: A plaintiff can be allowed by the court to submit interrogatories, or written questions, to a defendant in order to learn about the defendant’s ability to pay a judgment, in order to help the plaintiff decide whether to support or oppose a judgment payment plan.)

Judgment: The court’s official decision in a case, determining who has won the case (the plaintiff or defendant) and what the consequences are. (Example: A judgment for the plaintiff in a breach of contract case ordering the defendant to pay the plaintiff $5,000 in damages).

Jurisdiction: The legal authority to do something (Example: Small claims courts have the jurisdiction in California to decide cases in which a person is suing for up to $10,000. If the amount that a person is suing for is over that amount, then a small claims court does not have the authority, or legal power, to hear the case (i.e., another court would have to decide it)).

Jurisdiction (Personal): the power to decide a case based on the parties involved in it (i.e., the plaintiff and defendant). The point of personal jurisdiction is to limit a court’s ability to stick its nose where it doesn’t belong and decide the fate of people who have no relation to the court’s state. One example of when a court does have personal jurisdiction, or the ability to decide a case based on the parties involved, is when both parties are residents of California and the court is located in California. An example of when a court probably would not have personal jurisdiction is when a California resident decides to sue another California resident in a Texas court over a car accident that happened in California. Note that the question of personal jurisdiction typically relates to in which state a court can decide a case, whereas the question of venue, a confusingly similar issue about a court’s authority to decide a case, relates to which county in that state a court can decide a case

Jurisdiction (Subject Matter): the power of the court to decide a case based on what the case is about. This is the type of jurisdiction that allows small claims courts to decide cases in which the amount at stake is less than $10,000 because the amount at stake in these cases relates to the subject matter of these cases (i.e., what they are about), and small claims courts are intended to decide cases that are about relatively minor disputes

Legal Element: parts of a case, or cause of action, that the plaintiff needs to prove to win (Example: In order to win a lawsuit for “Breach of Contract” (which is a cause of action), a plaintiff would need to prove certain legal elements such as 1) the existence of a contract, 2) that the plaintiff itself did what it was supposed to do under the contract, 3) that the defendant didn’t do what it was supposed to do under the contract, and 4) that the plaintiff suffered harm because the defendant didn’t do what it was supposed to do under the contract. If the plaintiff fails to prove any one of these elements, then it will lose the case for breach of contract.)

Levy (Bank Levy): When a court orders that money be seized straight from the debtor's bank account.

Lien: A court order, related to collections, that gives someone who is owed money or property the right to the property of the person who owes them. (Example: A plaintiff is owed a $5,000 judgment that the defendant refuses to pay. The plaintiff discovers that the defendant has a Mercedes. The plaintiff can request that the court order a lien to be placed on the defendant’s car, so that when the car is sold, the plaintiff can get the $5,000 the plaintiff is owed from the sale of the car.

Lump sum: An entire amount. “Lump sum” is often used to describe a type of payment. A lump sum payment is one that is made in the entire amount all at once, rather than an amount that is split up over time (like according to a payment plan).

Mediation: A process in which a trained neutral mediator facilitates communication between the parties and, without deciding the issues or imposing a solution on the parties, enables them to understand and to reach a mutually agreeable resolution to their dispute. In some courts, mediation is asked from the parties before the hearing taking place, to give the parties a chance to reach a settlement (an agreement that both parties are happy with, without going in front of the judge). If you have settled via mediation, you should have a new agreement with the other party including terms for both parties to perform.

Objective: (adjective) fact-based, measurable and observable (i.e., the opposite of “subjective”)

Payment plan: A plan to pay off a certain amount over time, in smaller chunks, as opposed to all at once in a single lump sum. The debtor and creditor can set up a payment plan directly with each other. Another type of payment plan is when the debtor request to set up a payment plan with the court. The debtor will fill out a form to request to make payments, along with their financial statement to prove that they can't pay in whole.

Perform: In law, unlike in movies or plays, to “perform” is not necessarily a fun activity. In law, “perform” is a word that is used in reference to contracts. When someone agrees to a contract, what he or she has agreed to is to do or not do something. The reason the person has agreed to do or not do something in a contract is that the other people who have signed the contract have also agreed to do or not do something in return. When the people who have agreed to a contract do that which they have promised to do (or not do) according to the contract, then it is said that they have “performed” according to the contract. (Example: You have agreed in a contract to pay a contractor to fix your house. When you pay the contractor you have “performed” under the contract, since this is what you agreed to do in the contract. When the contractor refuses to fix your house as agreed to in the contract, then the contractor has failed to “perform” under the contract. When you later sue the contractor for breaking the contract, you are suing the contractor for not performing under the contract.)

Request to Make Payments (SC-220): This is a California court form that someone would need file in order to formally request from the court permission to pay off a judgment through a payment plan (as opposed to being required to pay the judgment off in a lump sum all at once). When submitting form SC-220, one would also need to submit form EJ-165, a financial statement, so that the court can properly understand that person’s financial situation and ability to pay.

Response to Request to Make Payments (SC-221): This is a California court form that one would use to formally approve or oppose another party’s request for a payment plan, or to suggest a different sort of payment plan than the one that was requested.

Satisfy: meet (or exceed) the requirements for the applicable standard of proof (Example: If the plaintiff has proven that there was a contract in a case for breach of contract, then the plaintiff has “satisfied” that particular element of a breach of contract cause of action).

Settlement (Conditional): After a court issues a judgment and at any time before the judgment expires (in California, money judgments expire automatically after 10 years), you and the debtor can enter into a conditional settlement agreement establishing a payment plan yourselves. Under such an agreement, you can agree to take no action to collect on the judgment so long as the debtor makes payments on time. Conditional settlements provide creditors with a great way to avoid the debtor getting a court-ordered payment plan that make efforts to get paid through court-ordered collections very difficult.

Small Claims Court: A special court that is designed to allow relatively minor cases (in terms of the amounts of money at stake) to be heard and decided relatively quickly and easily without the need for attorneys (who are typically very expensive). Different states have different standards for which cases can be heard in small claims courts. In California, a person can sue for an amount of up to $10,000 in small claims court.

Sole Proprietor: An unincorporated business with only one owner who pays personal income tax on profits earned. Easy to establish and dismantle, due to a lack of government involvement, making them popular with small business owners and contractors.

Statute of Limitation (SOL): The time period within which certain kinds of legal action may be brought. Statutes of limitation differ depending on the jurisdiction and the type of legal claim. For example, many U.S. states require a personal injury lawsuit be filed within one year from the date of injury, but some allow two years. As with most elements of law, litigants should consult the rules for their jurisdiction to ascertain the timelines that apply to their particular cause of action.

Sue: To file a lawsuit against a person, company, or organization that has unlawfully hurt you in some way. The goal of a lawsuit is to get a court to force that person, company, or organization to do something (for example, repay you for the financial damage they have caused you) or discontinue doing something (for example, to discontinue occupying your property), in order to right the wrong they have caused you.

Vacate Judgment: To have the judgement of the court removed or erased. If you did not attend the hearing and lost the claim or counterclaim, that means you've received a default judgment. You cannot appeal this kind of judgment and have a new trial until you “vacate the default judgment”, that is, until you have the judgment removed or erased. You can file a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment. Fill the form out and file it with the small claims clerk with a filing fee.

Venue: particular county or district in which a court case can be decided by a court with jurisdiction. (Example: If you are suing someone for $3,000, then you can choose to sue in small claims court, because small claims court has jurisdiction (or legal authority) to decide cases in which a person is suing for up to $10,000 (in California). But, you also need to determine in which county’s small claims court you can file your lawsuit. This decision – of which county to file in – relates to venue rather than jurisdiction.)

Wage garnishment: A collections method a court can order to force a defendant to pay off a judgment, through which a defendant’s wages are ordered to be paid directly to the plaintiff.

Witness Statement: Rather than bringing a witness to court, they can write a statement to the judge. This statement should cover everything the witness would have said in the courtroom if he or she was present. It should begin with who the witness is and what qualifies them to offer testimony before they jump right into what he or she witnessed.



The quest for justice is never easy, particularly when it comes to getting your money back. However, thanks to advances in technology, it has become easier. Quest for Justice’s first app, JusticeDirect, is the only app of its kind designed to support people without lawyers resolve their dispute and get their money back, both in and out of court. The first step to getting money back is through a letter demanding payment from the other party JusticeDirect offers customizable demand letters for free. If the letter demanding payment does not work, then the next step is taking them to court. JusticeDirect* will guide users every step of the way through the small claims court process by helping them:

  1. Understand the legal process;

  2. Evaluate the pros and cons that come with taking someone to court;

  3. Generate small claims court forms; and,

  4. Avoid common mistakes when filing your forms and serving notice on the other side.

*Currently, JusticeDirect can only help litigants sue in California’s small claims court.

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