Legal Studies glossary – L to P

This Legal Studies glossary contains terms and concepts relevant to Australian law, courts and legal processes. This page contains words from ‘L’ to ‘P’. This glossary is written and maintained by authors:

law reform
Law reform is the ongoing practice of reviewing, evaluating and changing the law, to ensure that it remains fair, effective and in line with social values.

A lawsuit is an action initiated against another party under common law, usually in a court.

Legislation is a law passed by an elected legislature, such as a parliament.

Libel is a form of defamation, where the defamatory material is written or published.

Litigation is the process of commencing and undertaking legal action under civil law, such as by the initiation of a lawsuit.

lobby group
A lobby group is an organisation which seeks to change or influence the law. Lobby groups may represent a large number of people, such as unions, professional associations, business groups; or they may address a particular issue, such as environmental law.

A lobbyist is an individual specifically employed to initiate or bring about a change in law, usually by communicating with government ministers.

Magistrates’ Court
The Magistrates’ Court is a lower-level court that deals with summary offences, conducts committal hearings for indictable offences and hears minor civil disputes.

mandatory sentencing
Mandatory sentencing is a system of sentencing for criminal offences, where minimum sentences are fixed by legislation. This prevents or limits judicial discretion. Many states of Australia have mandatory life sentences for murder, while Western Australia and the Northern Territory have both operated controversial ‘three-strikes’ sentencing regimes, where a third criminal offence results in a mandatory prison term.

Manslaughter is a criminal offence involving an act causes the death of another person, without a clear motive or intent to kill.

mea culpa
Latin, ‘my own fault’. A mea culpa is an admission of fault or responsibility, such as for criminal or negligent actions.

In Westminster systems, a minister is a member of parliament who is given responsibility for managing and overseeing a particular portfolio or area of law-making. Ministers are in charge of areas such as health, education, science, defence, trade, agriculture or transport. Most ministers are also members of the cabinet, so are involved in executive government.

A minor is a person under the age of 18. They are viewed by the law as having limited capacity.

In some jurisdictions, a misdemeanour is a minor or lesser criminal offence. In Australian law, summary offences are the broad equivalent of misdemeanours.

A mistrial is the abandonment of a trial before a verdict is reached. A mistrial can occur for a variety of reasons, such as a hung jury, the admission of inappropriate evidence or the misconduct of a judge, juror or barrister.

mitigating factor
A mitigating factor is a fact about a defendant or his/her actions that may, in part, explain these actions. If accepted by the court, a mitigating factor can lead to a reduction in sentence.

At law, the motive is a cause or reason for criminal action or behaviour. The accused’s financial difficulties, for example, may constitute a motive for theft.

Murder is an act that results in the death of another person. To constitute murder the accused is usually shown to have motive (reason to want the victim dead) and intent (a course of action designed to cause their death).

natural justice
Natural justice is a fundamental legal principle that allows an accused party the opportunity to respond to allegations, charges or claims.

non compos mentis
Latin, ‘not of sound mind’. Non compos mentis is a defence to a criminal or negligent act that suggests the individual did not fully understand the implications of their actions because they were mentally incapacitated at the time.

novel case
A novel case is a common law case with a new and unknown set of facts, a case for which there is no prior precedent.

An oath is a promise made by a person appearing before a court that they shall tell the truth. An oath is sworn upon a religious text such as the Bible or Qu’ran.

obiter dictum
Latin, ‘said by the way’. Obiter dictum comments or statements are made by a judge but are not necessarily part of his or her decision or determination. Obiter dictum statements are therefore not binding and do not constitute part of the ratio decendi or reasoning for their decision.

The ombudsman is an office resourced by Federal and State governments but independent of government. The ombudsman hears and investigates complaints from the public, usually about the decisions or conduct of government departments or subordinate authorities. If the matter warrants, the ombudsman may recommend a remedy to the relevant organisation and/or suggest legislative changes to the parliament.

overruling precedent
An overruling precedent occurs when a higher court rules that a precedent set in a lower court is no longer appropriate, and overturns it by setting a new precedent.

A parliament is a sovereign body, usually elected by the people, that creates, reviews and passes legislation. The government of the day is often formed within a parliament.

parliamentary committee
A parliamentary committee is a group of parliamentary members, formed to review and oversee legislation and governance in a particular area. Parliamentary committees can be standing committees (permanently formed) ad hoc committees (formed temporarily to consider a particular issue) and joint committees (made up of members from both houses of a bicameral legislature).

parliamentary counsel
A parliamentary counsel is a lawyer employed by parliament or political parties to examine and draft legislation.

Parole is the release of a prisoner from detention before the expiration of his or her sentence. Parole is granted with strict conditions such as good behaviour, supervision, employment and restrictions on movement or relocation.

A political party is a group of individuals who share similar ideas, viewpoints and values. Parties form to develop policies, seek law reform, select candidates and win seats in parliament.

Perjury is an indictable offence, the act of giving dishonest testimony under oath or affirmation. Perjury only relates to dishonest statements about material facts, that is, facts that may influence the outcome of a trial or other hearing.

persuasive precedent
A persuasive precedent is a statement or decision that is not binding but may be accepted as precedent, at the discretion of the second court. Examples of persuasive precedents include precedents from lower courts in the same hierarchy, precedents from courts in other jurisdictions and obiter dictum statements.

A petition is a document containing a number of signatures, presented to a minister or parliament in the hope of bringing about a change in the law.

In a civil matter, the plaintiff is the person making a complaint and seeking a remedy.

plea bargaining
Plea bargaining describes pre-trial negotiation between lawyers for the prosecution and the defence, in order to shorten the trial process. In some jurisdictions, the prosecution may agree to drop or lower certain charges, or agree to a particular sanction, if the accused agrees to plead guilty and accept those changes or sanctions.

Pleadings are a pre-trial phase in civil disputes, where the plaintiff and respondent lodge and exchange information about their dispute. The plaintiff will begin by submitting information about the claim and the type of remedy sought.

A plebiscite is a public vote on an issue or change to the law. A plebiscite differs from a referendum, which has the specific purpose of changing the Constitution. There have been national plebiscites on conscription (1916, 1917) and the selection of a national anthem (1977).

power of attorney
Power of attorney is a written authorisation, given by one individual to another, enabling the second person to make decisions on behalf of the first. This usually applies when the first person is unable to make their own decisions, for example, if they are mentally impaired or medically incapacitated.

A precedent is a decision about a principle of law, made within the judgement of a court. A precedent is binding on courts of equal or lower standing, when dealing with similar cases.

preliminary hearing (see committal hearing)

presumption of innocence
The presumption of innocence is an important legal principle and fundamental human right in most societies. It requires that any person accused of a criminal offence is considered innocent until proven otherwise by a court.

prima facie
Latin, ‘at first sight’. Prima facie evidence is material that at first sight suggests an offence has been committed and that a trial is necessary.

Prime Minister
The prime minister is the leader of the political party which holds a majority in the House of Representatives. The prime minister is the head of the Commonwealth or Federal government.

private bill
A private bill is an item of proposed legislation with provisions that apply to a particular person, group or corporation, rather than the public at large.

private member’s bill
A private member’s bill is a bill introduced into parliament by an individual member, without the explicit support or instruction of the government or a party.

probative evidence
Probative evidence is testimony or material presented to a trial or hearing that tends to prove a particular fact.

pro bono
Latin, ‘for the good’. Pro bono legal representation is offered as a public service, at no cost to the defendant or client. Most bar associations require their members to undertake some pro bono work each year.

Prosecution can refer to the proceedings of a criminal charge or the Crown’s representatives during a criminal trial.

The prosecutor is a lawyer or police officer who presents the Crown’s case in a criminal trial.

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