The 33 most commonly used legal terms

Article publié le : 17 May, 2023
Marteau et balance de la justice sur une table

Legal professionals use a specialised vocabulary that is necessary to understand a court decision, a legal document or a civil status document. This is why, in order to have a legal document translated it is an absolute necessity to call on the services of a sworn translator. To help you decipher the meaning of a legal document, we are providing you with a glossary of the most common legal terms.

The courts

A distinction is made between civil courts of first instance, criminal courts, and courts of appeal

Criminal Courts

  • The police tribunal: this is where offences committed by adults, such as speeding, are tried.
  • The correctional court: this court tries offences punishable by a prison sentence of 10 years or less and other penalties such as a fine or High Court offences.
  • The Court of assizes: judges the most serious offences and crimes (rape, murder, armed robbery, etc.) punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Civil courts of first instance

  • The judicial court: this is where disputes, divorces and successions are judged.
  • The employment tribunal: this is where labour disputes in the private sector are judged.
  • The Commercial Court: judges disputes relating to commercial acts and commitments made by companies and banks.

Courts of appeal

If you are not satisfied with the judgment of the court of first instance, you can appeal the decision. If you wish to challenge the decision of the Court of Appeal, you can appeal to the Court of Cassation.

  • The Court of Appeal reviews the cases decided at first instance and judges them on the merits and on the form.
  • The Court of Cassation is the highest court in France. It judges decisions taken by the Court of Appeal in civil or criminal matters. It does not judge the facts but ensures that the judges have applied the correct rule of law in reaching their decision.

The main actors in the judicial world

Justice actors

  • Lawyers: a lawyer is responsible for defending the interests of his client before, during and after legal proceedings. They may also have an advisory and intermediary role.
    Judicial conciliators: this is a voluntary auxiliary of justice whose role is to try to find an amicable solution to the dispute between the parties. They may be appointed by the parties or directly by the judge. They must then propose a court-approved solution free of charge.
  • Legal experts: they intervene to provide the judge with details on very precise technical points and to enlighten them with expertise in their field (accidentology, architecture, medicine, etc.)
    Judicial officers: a ministerial public officer, the judicial officer applies court decisions and draws up authentic instruments. He also has many other tasks which may (or may not) be related to legal proceedings (e.g. drawing up a report).
  • Notaries: also a public and ministerial officer, notaries authenticate deeds on behalf of their clients, have a role conserving these deeds and of providing legal advice. Sometimes it is required to use notary services.
  • Magistrates: a distinction is made between magistrates, judges, and public prosecutors, and deputies. All magistrates are assisted by public officials such as clerks or investigative police officers.

Specialised judges

  • Investigating judge: directs judicial investigations in criminal matters.
  • Sentence enforcement judge: monitors the lives of convicts (whether incarcerated or not) and decides on sentence adjustments and conditional releases.
  • Juvenile judge: deals with children, whether they are victims or perpetrators.
  • Family court judge: specialises in divorce and child custody matters.
  • Protection litigation judge: is responsible for the protection orders of adults and to give court decisions related to residential leases, consumer credits and over-indebtedness.

Procedures, legal actions

Legal action is the legal power of the litigant to go to court to have his rights recognised.

The different types of legal action

Bringing a private dispute before a court: This is the general legal route. A distinction is made between:

  • Real actions (property rights)
  • Personal actions (the request for recognition of a personal right)
  • Transferable shares
  • Real estate actions

Action before the criminal courts: there are two types of action, public action, exercised by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on behalf of the community, and the civil action exercised by the victim to claim compensation for the damage caused.

Action before the administrative courts: this is an appeal, either for misuse of power (annulment litigation) or full litigation (appeal for compensation).

Conditions for admissibility of legal action

  • Standing: the plaintiff must have a particular title or right to bring the action.
  • The interest to act: it can be material, moral or derive from the law.
  • Dismissal: this is a procedural exception which causes the action to be dismissed without the judge being able to examine the merits of the dispute.

Court decisions

  • At the end of a trial, the judge makes a decision. That is, he/she rules on the case with binding solutions.
  • The judgment: it is given by the Magistrate’s Court or the High Court.
    The judgment: it comes from the Council of State, the Court of Appeal, the Court of Cassation, or the Court of Assizes.


  • Damages are the harm suffered by a person. There are four types of damages.
  • Bodily injury: refers to any injury to the physical or mental integrity of a person.
  • Material loss: refers to damage to property
  • Moral damage: concerns damage of a psychological nature (following the disappearance of a loved one, for example)
  • Loss of amenity: this results from the deprivation of certain capacities that deprive the person of certain lifestyles (for example, the inability to continue to practice a sport). This damage is usually caused by a personal accident.


  • Civil sentencing: this is the decision taken by the judge requiring the person judged in court to pay a sum of money (damages, alimony, compensatory allowance, etc.), to perform an act or to respect a right.
  • Criminal sentencing: this is a court decision in which the person on trial is found guilty (or not guilty) of committing an offence punishable by a sentence. The sentences handed down are administrative (fines), tortious or criminal.


Note: While there is international law, justice is legislated nationally and is subject to country-specific rules. Thus, while there are many similarities in the functioning of the justice system in French-speaking countries, there are national specificities. For example, in Canada, the law is referred to as Common Law and the ultimate legal recourse is the Supreme Court of Canada.

This glossary of the most commonly used legal terms gives you an initial overview of the French legal system and its vocabulary. In Belgium or Canada, it would have been slightly different. It is by no means exhaustive and shows you that legal translation is a complex speciality because it requires a mastery of expert vocabulary.

Article rédigé par : BILIS