You are here

Terms You Hear at Court

Produced by Mariah Jennings-Rampsi, South Coastal Counties Legal Services, with funding from American College of Bankruptcy
Reviewed October 2019

It is helpful to know the words you will hear at court:

Admissions

Admissions are written statements that one party sends the other.  If the creditor sends them to you, you have 30 days to respond to admissions in writting.

Answer

An answer is the way you tell the judge why the creditor should not win their case against you and what they have done wrong. You must give your written answer to the court.

Collection agency

The creditor may have hired a collection agency to get the money you owe. Or, the creditor may have sold your debt to a collection agency. The collection agency can collect your debt for the original creditor, or to pay itself. If a collection agency takes you to court, the collection agency is the plaintiff.

Complaint 

When a plaintiff starts a court case, he has to file a complaint at court. The complaint explains why the plaintiff is taking you to court.

Counterclaim

Counterclaims are the claims you have against the creditor if they sued you first.

Creditor  

The person or company that you owe money to is called a creditor.

Debt    

Bills you have not paid and money you owe is called debt.

Defendant

If you are sued you are called the defendant or debtor.  You have the right to defend yourself in court.

Defense

Defenses are the legal reasons why the creditor should not win the case.

Deposition

A deposition is a discovery tool to ask the other party in the case questions about the case under oath outside of court.

Discovery

Discovery is the way parties in a court case gather information from each other.

Interrogatory

Interrogatories are a discovery tool.  They are written questions that one party “serves” the other.  They must be answered in writting.

Judgment

The final decision by the court.

Judgment by Default

A default judgment is the court saying you lost your case because you did not do something you were suppose to do. For example, you could get a default judgment against you if:

  • you did not go to court on the day you were supposed to be there, or
  • you did not filing an answer or "enter an appearance" in the case.

Plaintiff

The person or company suing you is called the plaintiff. A plaintiff can be:

  • a credit card company,
  • a hospital,
  • a bank or
  • any other person or company that says you did not pay money you owed.

Request for Production of Documents

Request for Production of Documents is a discovery tool a party in the lawsuit uses to get information and documents about the case from the other side.

Secured debt

A secured debt is a loan that is connected to and protected by property. A mortgage is a secured loan on a house.  A car loan is secured by the car. This means if you do not pay that loan, the creditor has special rights to take that piece of property. This is sometimes called a "security interest" in the property.

Service of process

“Service of Process” is the formal required way parties let each other know what they are doing in a case.  Everyone must follow the rules to serve notice properly. It is how:

  • the plaintiff must tell you they are suing you and
  • give you information about a hearing or
  • when to answer their complaint.

To start a case they must hire a sheriff or constable to deliver the papers to you. In a small claims case, they can send copies of the summons and complaint to you through certified mail.

You must give the plaintiff a copy of your “Answer,” “Discovery” or a Motion by first class mail or deliver it in person. You do not need a sheriff or constable. When a plaintiff asks for discovery, they also have to follow the rules and give you notice.

Sue

Creditors can take you to court for debt even if:

  • you offered to make small payments, or
  • you told the creditor you will make full payments as soon as you can.

When a person or company takes you to court for money you owe, they sue you for debt.

Summons

When a plaintiff files the complaint, the court sells them a summons. The summons is a court form that tells the person sued, the defendant, when and where they need to go for a hearing or when they must file an answer.

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

Ask a Law Librarian

If it's
Monday-Friday
between
9am and 4pm