Your EASY guide to the legal system.
The Layman's Law Dictionary
C Circuit Court

Tennessee's 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts as provided by the state constitution. Some districts also have legislatively established Criminal Courts. Judges of these courts are elected to eight year terms.

CIRCUIT COURTS are courts of general jurisdiction in Tennessee. Circuit judges hear civil and criminal cases and appeals of decisions from City, Juvenile, Municipal and General Sessions courts. The jurisdiction of Circuit Courts often overlaps that of the Chancery Courts. Criminal cases are tried in Circuit Court except in districts with separate Criminal Courts established by the General Assembly.

Chancery Court

Tennessee's 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts as provided by the state constitution. Some districts also have legislatively established Criminal Courts. Judges of these courts are elected to eight year terms.

CHANCERY COURTS are a good example of the court system's English heritage. The traditional equity courts are based on the English system in which the chancellor acted as the "King's conscience." Chancellors may, by law and tradition, modify the application of strict legal rules and adapt the relief given to the circumstances of individual cases.

Criminal Court

Tennessee's 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts as provided by the state constitution. Some districts also have legislatively established Criminal Courts. Judges of these courts are elected to eight year terms.

CRIMINAL COURTS are established by the General Assembly to relieve Circuit Courts in areas where they are justified by heavy caseloads. Criminal Courts exist in 13 of the State's 31 judicial districts. In addition to having jurisdiction over criminal cases, the 29 Criminal Court judges hear misdemeanor appeals from lower courts. In districts without Criminal Courts, criminal cases are handled at the trial level by Circuit Court judges.

City or Municipal Court

MUNICIPAL COURT, also known as city court, has jurisdiction in cases involving violations of city ordinances. Generally, a city judge has authority to assess fines up to $50 and jail sentences up to 30 days. However, jurisdiction varies widely from city to city. About 300 Tennessee cities have Municipal Courts.

Court of Appeals

The 12-member COURT OF APPEALS does just what its name suggests. The Court of Appeals hears most appeals of civil - or non-criminal - cases from lower courts. All final decisions of the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals meets in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson, sitting in panels of three judges.

Court of Appeals judges are selected under the Tennessee version of the "Missouri Plan." When a vacancy occurs on the Court of Appeals, the 15-member Judicial Selection Commission recommends three candidates from the grand division of the state in which the vacancy exists. The governor appoints a new judge from the list of three candidates.

Court of Appeals judges run on a "yes-no" ballot every eight years. Voters decide to retain or reject the judges, who run unopposed.

The COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS hears trial court appeals in felony and misdemeanor criminal cases. The twelve Court of Criminal Appeals judges also are selected under Tennessee's version of the Missouri Plan.

Panels of three judges sit monthly in Jackson, Knoxville and Nashville to hear cases. As with the Court of Appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals meets at other places and times as necessary.

Also like the Court of Appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals does not conduct trials. Instead, the records of the original trials in lower courts are reviewed, with attorneys presenting the legal issues.

D Defendant

A defendant is a person who is sued in a court of law. Take for example the following:

Imagine you are in an automobile accident. You are driving your car, and you run a red light hitting another individual. The other individual/driver suffers injuries and property damages. The individual hires a lawyer, and brings a lawsuit against you in a court of law. Once you are sued in a court of law, in a civil setting, you are a defendant-a person who has a legal claim pending against you. (If charges are brought against you in criminal court, you are a criminal defendant.)

If your sued, as a defendant in a civil court inthe factual scenario described above you need to appear in court, answer the claim, and defend yourself either saying you are not responsible for the injuries, or you are responsible for the injuries but the plaintiff did not suffer the damages claimed. If sued, it is always advisable to report the lawsuit to your insurance company. Your insurance company may provide you with a lawyer. 

In Tennessee there are many courts in which a civil suit can be filed. Tennessee has General Sessions Court, Circuit Court civil, Circuit Court criminal and Chancery Court. In Tennessee, there are many legal theories upon which a plaintiff, or someone bringing a lawsuit, can bring a lawsuit against a defendant. If you are sued, and you have questions always consult a lawyer. If you have questions about this definition feel free to e-mail us.

G General Sessions Court Civil Division-Tennessee

The Court of General Sessions, Civil Division is a court of limited jurisdiction, often referred to as the "people's court." A person may represent himself without an attorney. A corporation filing suit must have an attorney. General Sessions Court is the Court that most people have their first experience in bringing a claim or defendending a claim


The following cases may be filed in Sessions Court on a Civil Warrant, a form used by people to file a claim in Court. These suits may not exceed $25,000.00. Suits above this amount must be filed in Circuit Court.
  • Open accounts -- for example, past due bills that remain unpaid.
  • Contracts --for example, you hire a contractor, the contractor does not perform the work you contracted him to perform, you suffer damages, and you bring a claim to enforce the contract
  • Notes - for example, if you loan money, have a written agreement for the payment of money, and the money is not paid you may have the right to bring a claim.
  • Damages - for example, you are in an automobile accident, your car is damaged, you may file a claim to have the person responsible for the accident pay for those damages.
These suits may be filed for an unlimited amount.
  • Replevins -if you have property unlawfully taken from you, you can file an action to get the court to legally assist you in getting your property back to you.
  • Detainers - Detainers are most commonly issued during eviction proiceedings, asking the court to issue a writ of detainer to seek removal of an individual from rental property
  • Detinues -- if you believe you have a greater right to the possession of property than another, then you can bring a dtinue action to get the court's assistance in declaring your rights to possession of property


The clerk must have an original civil warrant (a civil warrant is a complaint alleging a legal claim) and a copy for each defendant to file a suit. An additional civil warrant is required for service out of county or out of state. All cost on civil warrants are prepaid unless a pauper's oath is filed. The warrant must include the following information:

  • The plaintiff's name, address and phone number
  • The defendant's name, home address and work address
  • The attorney's name, address, and attorney's number
  • The type of action and the amount of the suit
  • Both sides of the warrant must have the same style

Civil warrants served by the Secretary of State must be accompanied by a $20.00 check payable to the Secretary of State. Civil warrants served by the Commissioner of Insurance must be accompanied by a $10.00 check payable to the Commissioner of Insurance. Civil warrants served out of county must have a $22.00 check payable to the sheriff of the county doing the service.

The hearing on cases served out of county or by a private process server are set in advance of service by the clerk. All other hearings are set by the deputy at the time of service. The clerk is not required to send notification of any court dates. It is the responsibility of the plaintiff to call the clerk's office to confirm service and the court date.

There are no jury trials in Sessions Court. It is not a court of record and all judgments are rendered by the Judge.

A thirty day notice, or 10 day notice if Rent is weekly, must be given to the tenant before a detainer warrant can be issued, unless lease states otherwise. Writs of possession may not be issued until the eleventh day from the judgment date. When a plaintiff is given a judgment for possession of the property on a detainer warrant, it is the plaintiff's responsibility to request the writ of possession. Arrangements for service are made through the Sheriff's Department. The plaintiff is responsible for removing any possessions left by the tenant from the property.

An appeal on a judgment must be filed within ten days after the judgment is rendered. The cost of Appeal is $207.50. A garnishment can be issued on the eleventh day after the judgment date. A wage garnishment is effective for six months. Personal checks cannot be accepted on garnishments.

Source:  Hamilton County Tennessee

Also see the following definition:

GENERAL SESSIONS COURT jurisdiction varies from county to county based on state laws and private acts. Every county is served by the court which hears civil and criminal cases, including matters formerly handled by justices of the peace. Civil jurisdiction is restricted to specific monetary limits and types of actions. Criminal jurisdiction is limited to preliminary hearings in felony cases and misdemeanor trials in which a defendant waives the right to a grand jury investigation and trial by jury in Circuit or Criminal Court. General Sessions judges also serve as juvenile judges except in counties in which the legislature has established a separate Juvenile Court. General Sessions judges are elected to eight year terms.

Source:  Tennessee's Administrative Office of the Courts

J Juvenile Court

JUVENILE COURT jurisdiction is vested in General Sessions Courts in all counties except those in which the law establishes special Juvenile Courts. Juvenile Courts have exclusive jurisdiction in proceedings involving minors alleged to be delinquent, unruly, dependent and neglected. Juvenile Courts also have concurrent jurisdiction with Circuit, Chancery and Probate Courts in some areas.

Source:  Tennessee's Administrative Office of the Courts.

L Layman's Law Dictionary

This dictionary is designed for everyday use. Lawyers use the Blacks Law Dictionary, and those terms are often filled with legalese making it difficult for everyday people to understand. This dictionary is a guide, it is designed to give you information about commonly used legal terms, to help you understand your legal system. The dictionary is under development, and is a guide for everyday people to get a snapshot into how the legal system works. If you have a question on any legal term email us.

If you have a term you want defined in this dictionary let us know by emailing us.


Most courts have civil courts and criminal courts.  The civil court is where a person will bring a claim for money damages.  The claim usually arises out of a situation where one person (or  party) claims another owes them money for damages.

Civil claims can arise from an automobile accident where one pereson causes damage to another, either to their property or their person.  A civil suit is a mechanism to recover money for damages.

Civil claims also can arise from a contract.  If one person signs a contract with another and one of the parties to the contract fails to perfrom the contract, a person may bring a claim arising from the failure to do what is promised in the contract.

There are many examples of civil suits, or lawsuits.  For more information or questions, please feel free to email us.

P Plaintiff

The plaintiff is someone who files a lawsuit. Take for example the following facts:

Imagine you are in an automobile accident. You were sitting at a red light, the light turns green and another individual runs a red light hitting you in the driver side of the door. You are injured, seek medical treatment, have permanent injuries, and you suffer property damage to your car.

If you decide that you would like to recover money from the person who caused the automobile accident, you can file a lawsuit. If you file a lawsuit, you can allege that the person causing the accident is responsible for payment of your medical bills, lost time from work, and your permanent injuries. If you file a lawsuit you are considered a plaintiff-insurance companies sometimes referred to plaintiffs as claimants before they file a lawsuit, they are claiming damages and the insurance company may have a policy of insurance covering those damages for the person causing those damages.

In Tennessee, a plaintiff traditionally filed lawsuits in a court of law. The courts of law in Tennessee include General Sessions Court, Circuit Court, and Chancery Court.

The plaintiff is, therefore, someone who files a lawsuit for damages, or other legal theories in which the plaintiff can recover in a court of law.

There are many types of lawsuits filed in many different courts in the State of Tennessee, if you have a question about illegal claim it is advisable to always consult a lawyer. If you have any questions about this definition, e-mail us.

Property Damages vs Personal Injury

At LegalEase we want to be simple and to the point.  In defining property damage vs. personal injury (damage) we thought the following might be helpful:

This is personal injury:

This is property damage:

Maybe with a bit of personal injury to the moose.

This is a combination of both:

This illustration is an example of property damage and personal injury--pictures, we believe, are worth 1000 words, no 1 million words.  Different legal definitions apply to these terms as defined by state law, or statute.  If you have any questions regarding the types of damages out there, click here or ask your lawyer.

Probate Court

Tennessee's 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts as provided by the state constitution. Some districts also have legislatively established Criminal Courts. Judges of these courts are elected to eight year terms.

PROBATE COURTS in Shelby and Davidson counties were created by the legislature and given exclusive jurisdiction over probate of wills and administration of estates. The courts also handle conservatorships and guardianships.

Source:  Tennessee's Administrative Office of the Courts.

R Reasonable Doubt

Every once in a while a case comes along illustrating the concept of reasonable doubt that clearly shows, by example, the meaning of reasonable doubt.  In criminal cases a defendant does not prove innocence, the defendant creates reasonable doubt--if jurors have it they must vote to acquit.

The Casey Anthony trial is capturing our attention, people are waiting in line, sometimes fighting for a place in line, to see the trial.  The defense is engaging in presenting evidence to create reasonable doubt--the evidence in the Anthony trial is an good example of how the defense works to place reasonable doubt in juror's minds.

The Associated Press reports on the defense proof:

"A defense expert the Casey Anthony murder trial that the stench from the woman's car trunk came from a bag of trash, not the decaying body of her 2 year old daughter..."

The prosecution suggested that Ms. Anthony murdered her daughter and left her in the car trunk.  Evidence suggested that there was a strong smell from the decaying body in the trunk suggesting the body was placed there by the murderer.  The defense countered with the testimony of forensic entomologist that "told jurors that he would have expected to have found hundred of dead insects--not only in the trunk but also in the passenger compartment of the vehicle if the child's body had been stored in the trunk...Instead, he said, with the smell coming from a bag of trash with trash feeding insects in it...there's something remarkable about that..."There are other examples of the defense's efforts to create reasonable doubt in the juror's minds.

According to CNN

"Duct tape found on Caylee Anthony's skull was placed there after the toddler's body had decomposed, not before she died, a forensic pathologist testified...Prosecutors claim Caylee's mother, Casey Anthony, used chloroform to make her daughter unconscious then used duct tape to cover her nose and mouth, suffocating her. The girl's skeletal remains were found in a wooded field six months after her family last reported seeing her...Dr. Werner Spitz said he believes the tape was placed on the body long after the flesh had disappeared to hold the jaw bone on, perhaps because someone wanted to move it. Spitz also criticized the Orange County medical examiner, Dr. Jan Garavaglia, for conducting what he termed a "shoddy autopsy" by failing to cut Caylee's skull open to look inside."

If, after hearing this evidence, a juror has doubt, reasonable doubt, the juror must vote for acquittal.  In this case the defense wants the jurors to think there are other explanations for Caylee Anthony's death.  Moreover, the defense is calling into question the methodology of the Orange County Medical Examiner, creating doubt about the medical examiner's autopsy. The testimony is designed to create a thought process where the jurors reasonably doubt the prosecution's theory on Caylee's death and who is responsible for that death.

Reasonable doubt is legally defined as:

"The standard that must be met by the prosecution's evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

If the jurors or judge have no doubt as to the defendant's guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty.

The term connotes that evidence establishes a particular point to a moral certainty and that it is beyond dispute that any reasonable alternative is possible. It does not mean that no doubt exists as to the accused's guilt, but only that no Reasonable Doubt is possible from the evidence presented.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof that must be met in any trial. In civil litigation, the standard of proof is either proof by a preponderance of the evidence or proof by clear and convincing evidence. These are lower burdens of proof. A preponderance of the evidence simply means that one side has more evidence in its favor than the other, even by the smallest degree. Clear and Convincing Proof is evidence that establishes a high probability that the fact sought to be proved is true. The main reason that the high proof standard of reasonable doubt is used in criminal trials is that such proceedings can result in the deprivation of a defendant's liberty or even in his or her death. These outcomes are far more severe than in civil trials, in which money damages are the common remedy."

Each court may have a different definition of reasonable doubt depending on the law of the state, the definition presented to a jury depends on the jury instruction written under state law.  The definition given here, however, is a good example of what reasonable doubt means, and with the video expamples from the Casey Anthony trial you get a good snap shot in how a defendant's attorney creates reasonable doubt in a juror's mind.

As a further example of the defense strategy on other issues, Casey Anthony's lawyers solcited testimony from their expert suggesting that where Caylee was found, and the volume and types of insects, indicates "that 'the body was moved or transported from some other location to the site where it was discovered."  The defense is suggesting the person finding the body held it until he know he could make money off the discovery and then placed it at a location where he led police to the scene. The defense is trying to show crime scene tampering which may result in acquittal or dismissal of the charges if the body was moved destroying key evidence to link Casey Anthony to her daughter's death.


S Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations and it is the timeframe in which you have to bring a claim in a court of law. For purposes of this definition, we will deal with personal injury and the statute of limitations for personal injury.

First, the statute of limitations is an absolute deadline. This definition will deal with the statue of limitations for personal injury claims in the State of Tennessee. Generally speaking, a personal injury claim is a claim for an injury to your person or to your body. For purposes of this definition we will refer to the statute of limitations arising from an automobile accident where you have injured a part of your body.

In Tennessee, if you have an accident on April 1 where you have a personal injury the statute of limitations is 1 year from April 1. It is an absolute limit on filing a claim.

Of course, when you are dealing with the law there may be exceptions to the rule. It is, however, important to remember that the statute of limitations bars a claim from bringing filed if it is not filed in a court of law within the statute of limitations timeframe.

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