Common Definitions Heard in Michigan Trial Courts

Definitions of Words and Phrases Often Heard

in Michigan Courtrooms

Action, Case, Lawsuit:

These words mean the same thing.  They all refer to a legal dispute brought into court for trial. 



The paper in which the defendant/respondent answers the claims of the plaintiff/petitioner.



After all the evidence on both sides of a lawsuit is in, lawyers on each side are permitted to tell the jury what they think the evidence proves and why they think their side should win. This is usually called an “argument” or “summing up.”


Calling the Adverse Party for

Cross-Examination Under the Rules:

In civil cases it is not uncommon for lawyers to call the opposing party for “cross-examination under the rules.”  This means that the law gives them the right to cross-examine the opposing party even though that person has not been a witness in their own behalf.


Cause of Action:

The legal grounds on which a party to a lawsuit relies to get a verdict against their adversary is usually referred to as a “cause of action.”


Challenge for Cause:

Lawyers, after examining a prospective juror, thing his or her state of mind indicates bias in favor of one side or the other in a lawsuit, may ask the judge to excuse that juror.  This process is called challenging for cause.


“Charge” or Instructions: 

After all the evidence is in, and the lawyers have made their arguments, the judge may review the evidence and state the issues the jury must decide.  He or she will state the law which must guide their deliberations and control their verdict.  This is called either the judge’s “charge” to the jury or “instructions.”  A judge may give an instruction to the jury on some point of law at any stage of the trial.


Child Protective Proceeding:

A Family Division proceeding in which parent(s) or guardian(s) is/are accused of the neglect and/or abuse of a minor.


Civil Case:

A lawsuit is called a civil case when it is between persons in their private capacity or relations. It results generally in a verdict for the plaintiff or for the defendant, and in many cases, involves the giving or denying of damages (money).



This document filed by the person who brings the suit (plaintiff) sets forth claims against the defendant, is called a complaint.



Person appointed by the court to exercise powers over the estate of a protected individual.



A “counterclaim” results when the defendant, in answer to the complaint, claims he or she is entitled to damages or other relief from the plaintiff.


Criminal Case:

A lawsuit is called a criminal case when it is between the State of Michigan on one side as plaintiff, and a person or corporation on the other as a defendant.  It involves a question of whether the defendant has violated one of the laws defining crimes, and the verdict is usually “guilty” or “not guilty.”



The questions which a lawyer puts to the litigant or witnesses on the opposing side are designated as cross-examination.



The person against whom a lawsuit is started – in a criminal case, the person charged with an offense is called the defendant.


Delinquency Case:

A Family Division proceeding in which a juvenile is charged with criminal or prohibited behavior.  While technically a civil action, trial procedures are similar to adult criminal proceedings.



        The testimony of a party to a lawsuit or a witness may be written out in         question and answer form before trial, just as it would have been given         in court.  This testimony is called a deposition.  It may be read at the             trial.

Directed Verdict: 

A party may move for a directed verdict at the close of the evidence offered by an opponent.  If there is no issue of fact for the jury to decide, the judge will instruct the jury regarding the kind of verdict to return.  The jury must return such a verdict.

 Examination, Direct Examination,


The questions which lawyers ask their own client or their own witnesses are often referred to as examination, direct examination or examination-in-chief.


Articles such as pictures, books, letters, and documents are often received in evidence.  These are called “exhibits.”


A person appointed by the court to exercise powers over the person of a legally incapacitated individual. 


A disputed question of fact is referred to as an “issue.”  It is sometimes spoken  of as one of the “questions” which the jury must answer in order to reach a verdict.

 Jury Panel:

The whole number of prospective jurors, from which the trial of 6 to 12 is chosen.

 Legally Incapacitated Individual:

A person who is impaired by reason of mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, or other cause, to the extent that the person lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate informed decisions concerning his or her peers.


        Parties to a lawsuit.  Refers to plaintiff/petitioner and                                     defendant/respondent in Circuit Court, petitioner and respondent in             Probate Court.

Mental Health Care:

A  Probate Court case involving a petition to determine if an individual requires treatment, as defined by the Michigan Health Code.


“Objection Overruled” or “Overruled”:

This term means that, in the judge’s opinion, the lawyer’s objection is not well taken under the law.  His or her ruling is not subject to question by jurors.


“Objection Sustained” or “Sustained”:

When a lawyer objects to the form of a question, or the answer a question calls for, the judge may say “objection sustained” or merely “sustained.”  This means that the judge agrees that, under the law, the lawyer’s objection was well taken.  His or her ruling is not subject to question by jurors.


Opening Statement:

Before introducing any evidence for their side of the case, lawyers are permitted to tell the jury what the case is about and what evidence they expect to bring in to prove their side of the case.  This is called an opening statement.



In Circuit Court, the plaintiff/petitioner and defendant/respondent in the case are called parties.  In Probate Court, parties are the petitioner and respondent. Sometimes there is more than one party on either side.  In some cases, the parties make claims and counterclaims against each other.


Passed, Passed for Cause:

These are expressions used by lawyers while examining prospective jurors.  They indicate that the lawyers do not intend to challenge the prospective juror.


Peremptory Challenge:

In all cases, the law provides that the lawyer on either side may demand that a set number of prospective jurors be excused, without being required to give reason for the demand.  The judge must excuse the jurors designated. This is called a peremptory challenge.



The document in which a person in a Circuit or Probate Court proceeding.



          In Circuit Court, the person who starts a lawsuit.



The parties in a lawsuit must file court papers stating their claims against each other.  These are called “pleadings.”


Protected Individual:

          An individual who is unable to manage his or her property and

          affairs effectively.



          Often the judge or the lawyers may declare that something is, or is

not, for “the record.”  This refers to the word-for-word record made by the official reporter of all the proceedings at the trial.  Several courtrooms use a videotape record of proceedings instead of a court reporter. In those courts, the entire proceedings are recorded on videotape.



A person to whom a petition is directed in a Circuit or Probate Court proceeding.



This is a legal phrase which means that the lawyer has concluded the evidence he or she wants to introduce at that stage of the trial.



The sworn statements of witness made either in open court by deposition.


Voir dire:

          The preliminary questioning in court of prospective jurors.


Will Contest:

A Probate Court proceeding to determine the validity of a proposed Will.



A person, sworn to tell the truth, who states observations or experiences which relate to the case before the court.


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