Common Legal Terms

Legal terminology can be complicated and confusing unless you are a party in the justice system yourself. Ohio Legal Help seeks to make the justice system more accessible so that people feel empowered to resolve their legal problems. Our blog series, Legally Informed, will help you understand common terms used in the courtroom and cases.

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In this blog, we’ll cover legal terms that are commonly used in cases.  For example, we’ll discuss the different “burdens of proof” and the difference between “dismissed with prejudice” and “dismissed without prejudice.” If you haven’t read our blogs about the players in a lawsuit and the differences between civil cases and criminal cases, read through those first to better understand some of the other terms in this blog.

Burden of proof

A burden of proof is the standard that requires a party, such as the plaintiff, to show that their claims are valid. In order for the party to win their case, they must convince a jury or judge that they have met their burden of proof. There are different burdens of proof for different types of cases.

In most civil cases, the burden of proof is the “preponderance of the evidence.” This is the minimum standard of proof. This means that the plaintiff needs to prove that the allegations in their complaint are more likely than not true. This is sometimes referred to as the “50+” rule.

For example, in an eviction case, generally the landlord (plaintiff) must show that it is more likely than not they properly served the tenant (defendant) a 3-day notice, there was a breach of the lease (like unpaid rent), and the tenant has not moved out. If you have a landlord-tenant dispute, Ohio Legal Help has information about fighting an eviction and how to present evidence in court.

In some civil cases, the burden of proof is “clear and convincing evidence.” The clear and convincing standard is the second highest standard of proof and is used in civil cases where more than money is involved such as civil contempt or child abuse and neglect cases. For example, the Public Children Services Agency in an abuse and neglect case has the burden of meeting the clear and convincing evidence standard. There is a higher standard in these cases because a parent could lose custody of their child and their parental rights. If you are a parent involved in an abuse, neglect, or dependency case, you have a right to a lawyer and if you cannot afford a lawyer, you should ask the court to appoint one for you.

Criminal cases have the highest burden of proof known as “beyond a reasonable doubt.” To convict someone of a crime, the prosecution must prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning that there is no other reasonable explanation for the evidence presented. Juries should presume a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and only convict if there is no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.

Dismissed with or without prejudice

You may have heard the terms “dismissed with prejudice” or “dismissed without prejudice.” A case that is dismissed with prejudice means that it is dismissed permanently and cannot be brought back to court in the future. A case dismissed without prejudice means the opposite, which means the person who started the case can try again in the future.

For example, in debt collection cases, sometimes the parties settle with a lump sum payment for less than the alleged amount owed. In these types of cases, the plaintiff might dismiss the case with prejudice since there is no need to come back to court in the future.

A case dismissed without prejudice has the option to be re-filed in the future. For instance, debt collectors, unless they have a good reason, should attach to their case filing a copy of the contract or account. In cases where the defendant files a motion to force the debt collector to produce the contract or account ledger, the debt collector may dismiss without prejudice to have time to obtain a copy of the contract or account ledger.

Another example of a dismissal without prejudice is when a landlord does not properly serve a 3-day notice to the tenant. They may dismiss the case without prejudice, correct their errors by properly serving a 3-day notice, and re-file the case.

If you are currently dealing with a complicated case, you should think about getting a lawyer. Learn how to find a lawyer that is right for you, including through legal aid and lawyer referral services.