Legal Dictionary P


A person who is neither a lawyer nor is not acting in that capacity but who provides a limited number of legal services. Each state differs in the authority it gives paralegals in exercising what traditionally would be lawyers’ work.


A pardon is a government decision to allow a person who has been convicted of a crime, to be free and absolved of that conviction, as if never convicted. Typically used to remove a criminal record against a good citizen for a small crime that may have been committed during adolescence or young adulthood. The procedures vary from one state to another, but the request for a pardon usually involves a lengthy period of time of impeccable behavior and a reference check. Generally speaking, the more serious the crime, the longer the time requirement for excellent behavior. In the USA, the power to pardon for federal offenses belongs to the President.

Parens patriae

Latin: A British common law creation whereby the courts have the right to make unfettered decisions concerning people who are not able to take care of themselves. For example, a court can make custody decisions regarding a child or an insane person, even without statute law to allow them to do so, based on their residual, common law-based parens patriae jurisdiction.

Pari delicto

Latin for “of equal fault.” If two parties complain to a judge of the non-performance of a contract by the other, and the judge finds that they were equally at fault in causing the contract’s breach, the judge could refuse to provide a remedy to either of them because of “pari delicto”.

Pari passu

Latin: Equitably and without preference. A term often used in bankruptcy proceedings where creditors are said to be “pari passu” meaning that they are all equal and that distribution of the assets will occur without preference between them.


An early release from incarceration in which the prisoner promises to heed certain conditions. The conditions are usually set by a parole board and under the supervision of a parole officer. Violation of any of those conditions would result in the return of the person to prison.


Killing one’s father or another family member or close relative.


A business organization of two or more persons carrying out business together. Each partner is fully liable for all the debts of the enterprise but they also share the profits exclusively. Many states have laws regulating partnerships and may, for example, require some form of registration and allow partnership agreements. One of the basic advantages of partnerships is that they tend to allow business losses to be deducted from personal income for tax purposes (see also limited partner).

Par value shares

Shares issued by a company which have a minimum price. Contrast with shares which are without par value or “non par value shares” which may be sold at whatever price the company’s board of directors decides.


An exclusive privilege granted to an inventor to make, use, or sale an invention for a set number of years. In effect, the state grants a temporary monopoly to an inventor through the issuance of a patent, as a financial incentive to potential inventors.


Being a father. “Paternity suits” are launched when a man denies being the father of a child born out of wedlock. The new technology of DNA testing can establish paternity, thus obliging the father to provide child support.


The person to whom payment is addressed or given. In family law, the term usually refers to the person who receives or to whom support or maintenance is owed. In commercial law, the term refers to the person to whom a bill of exchange is made payable. On a regular check, the space after the words “pay to the order of” identifies the payee.


The person who is making the payment(s). Again, in the context of family law, the word would typically refer to the person who is paying support or maintenance. In commercial law, the word refers to the person who makes the payment on a check or bill of exchange.


One who suffers from a sexual perversion, pedophilia, in which children are preferred as sexual partners.

Pen register

An electronic surveillance device which attaches to a phone line and which registers every number dialed from a specific telephone. This surveillance device is not as effective as wire-tapping.

Pendente lite

Latin: during litigation. For example, if the validity of a will is challenged, a court might appoint an administrator pendente lite with limited powers to do such things as may be necessary to preserve the assets of the deceased until a hearing can be convened on the validity of the will. Another example is an injunction pendente lite, to last only during the litigation and, again, designed simply to preserve something until the decisive court order is issued.

Percolating water

Water which seeps or filters through the ground without any definite channel and is not part of the flow of any waterway. The best example is rain water.


An intentional lie given while under oath or in a sworn affidavit.

Perpetuating testimony

Testimony or evidence taken when it is feared that the person with that evidence may soon die or disappear and that this person’s evidence, if recorded, could then be used in the future to prevent a possible injustice or to support a future claim of property.


Forever; of unlimited duration. Rights that are to last forever are said to hinder commerce as an impediment to the circulation of property. There is a strong bias in the law against things that are to last in perpetuity.


An entity with legal rights and existence including the ability to sue and be sued, to sign contracts, to receive gifts, to appear in court either by themselves or by lawyer and, generally, other powers incidental to the full expression of the entity in law. This definition includes not only individuals, who are “persons” in law unless they are minors or under some kind of other incapacity such as a court finding of mental incapacity but also includes business organizations that have been formally registered, such as partnerships, corporations or associations.

Personal representative

In the law of wills, the general name given to the person who administers the estate of a deceased person. There are two kinds of personal representatives: an administrator who is appointed by a court if a person dies without a will (intestate) and an executor if a personal representative is named in a will.


The formal, written document submitted to a court, which describes an injustice of some kind and asks the court for redress. Petitions set out the facts, identify the law under which the court is being asked to intervene, and end with a suggested course of action for the court to consider (e.g. payment of damages to the plaintiff). Because of the complexity of most legal forms, petitions are normally filed by lawyers but most states will allow citizens to file petitions provided they conform to the court’s form. Some states do not use the word “petition” and, instead, might refer to an “application”, a “complaint” or the “writ.”


A petty or underhanded lawyer; an attorney who sustains a professional livelihood on disreputable or dishonorable business. The word has also taken on a common usage definition referring to anyone prone to quibbling over details.

Petty offense

A minor crime for which the punishment is usually just a small fine or short term of imprisonment. See also misdemeanor and felony.

Physical custody

A child custody decision granting the right to organize and administer the day to day residential care of a child. This is usually combined with legal custody.


To object publicly, on or adjacent to the employer’s premises, to an employer’s labor practices, goods or services. The most common form of picketing is patrolling with signs.


The person who brings a case to court; who sues. May also be called “claimant”, “petitioner” or “applicant”. The person being sued is generally called the “defendant” or the “respondent.”

Plea bargaining

Negotiations during a criminal trial between an accused person and a prosecutor. The accused agrees to admit to a crime (sometimes a lesser crime than the one set out in the original charge), thus avoiding the expense of a public trial, in exchange for which the prosecutor agrees to ask for a sentence more lenient than would have been recommended if the case had proceeded to full trial. Judges are not bound by plea bargains, although, as past lawyers themselves, they are generally aware of plea bargains and a reasonable recommendation of a prosecutor on sentencing is always heavily considered.


That part of a party’s case in which he or she formally sets out the facts and legal arguments which support that party’s position. Pleadings can be in writing or they can be made verbally to a court, during the trial.


To kill or take an animal or fish from the property of another without permission. Hunting with permission on another’s land is not poaching.


Being married to more than one person at the same time. Illegal in most countries.


A lie-detector machine. It works by recording variations in blood pressure, body temperature and respiration of a subject as he answers questions.

Postal rule

A rule of contract law making an exception to the general rule that an acceptance is only created when communicated directly to the offeror. When the acceptor places the acceptance in the mail box for return mail the acceptance is binding and the contract is said to be perfected even if, in fact, it never reaches the offeror.

Power of attorney

A document which gives a person the right to make binding decisions for another, as an agent. A power of attorney may be specific to a certain kind of decision or general, in which the agent makes all major decisions for the person who is the subject of the power of attorney. The person signing the power of attorney is usually referred to, in law, as the donor and the person that would exercise the power of attorney, the donee.

Præcipe or precipe

A Latin term which used to refer to the actual writ that would be presented to a court clerk to be officially issued on behalf of the court. Now the term mostly refers to the covering letter from the lawyer (or plaintiff) which accompanies and formally asks for the writ to be issued by the court officer. The precipe is kept on the court file, but does not accompany the writ when the latter is served on the defendant.

Precatory words

Words that express a wish or a desire rather than a clear command. They are often found in trusts or wills and cause great difficulties when courts try to find the real intention of the settlor or testator.


A case establishing legal principles to a certain set of facts, coming to a certain conclusion, and which is to be followed from that point on when similar or identical facts are before a court. Precedents form the basis of the theory of stare decisis, which prevents “reinventing the wheel” and allows citizens to have a reasonable expectation of the legal solutions which apply in a given situation.

Preferred shares

A share in a company having a special right or privilege attached to it, distinguishing it from the company’s common shares. Most commonly that special right is a preference over holders of common shares when dividends are declared. Another possible right is for the preferred shares to be redeemable at the option of either the holder or the company. Still another might be to disallow voting rights to preferred shareholders. Depending on the laws in each state, there may be no limit to the qualifications a company can attach to preferred shares.


A word describing the strength or weight of evidence such that it persuades a judge or jury to lean toward one side as opposed to the other during the course of litigation. In many states, criminal trials require evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, but civil trials require only a preponderance of the evidence. The judge or jury will perceive the evidence of one side as outweighing the other based on which side has the most persuasive or impressive evidence. The strength or “weight” of evidence is not decided by the sheer number of witnesses but by their credibility, and their testimony is given weight accordingly. The side with the preponderance of evidence wins the case.


A method of acquiring rights through the silence of the legal owner and known in common law jurisdiction as “statute of limitations.” When used in a real property context, the term refers to the acquisition of property rights, such as an easement, by long and continued use or enjoyment. The required duration of continued use or enjoyment, before legal rights are enforceable, is usually written into a state’s law known as “statute of limitations.”

Presumption of advancement

A presumption in trust, contract and family law which suggests that property transferred from a parent to a child, or spouse to spouse, is a gift and would defeat any presumption of a resulting trust.

Prima facie(Latin)

A Latin term which means “on the face of it” or “at first sight”. Law-makers will often use this as a device to establish that if a certain set of facts are proven, then another fact is established “prima facie”. For example, proof that a letter was mailed is prima facie proof that it was received by the person to whom it was addressed, and such prima facie evidence will be accepted as such by a court unless proven otherwise.


An agent’s master; the person from whom an agent has received instruction and to whose benefit the agent is expected to perform and make decisions.

Private law

Law which regulates the relationships between individuals. Examples include family, commercial and labor law because the focus of these kinds of law is the relationships between individuals, or between corporations or organizations and individual, with the government as a bystander. They are the counterpart to public law.


A special and exclusive legal advantage or right, such as a benefit, exemption, power or immunity. An example would be the special privileges that some persons have in a bankruptcy to recoup their debts from the bankrupt’s estate before other, non-privileged creditors.


The formal certificate given by a court that certifies that a will has been proven, validated and registered and which, from that point on, gives the executor the legal authority to execute the will. A “probate court” is a name given to the court that has this power to ratify wills.


A form of punishment given out as part of a sentence. Instead of jailing a person convicted of a crime, a judge will order that the person report to a probation officer regularly and according to a set schedule. Disobedience of the probate order is a criminal offence and is cause for being immediately jailed. Someone “on probation” is presently under such a court order. The probation orders may have special conditions attached to them, such as not to leave the city, drink alcohol, consume drugs, not to go to a specific place or contact a certain person.

Pro bono

Provided for free. Pro bono publico means “for the public good.”

Profit à prendre

A servitude which resembles an easement and allows the holder to enter the land of another and to take some natural produce such as mineral deposits, fish or game, timber, crops or pasture.

Pro forma

As a matter of form; in keeping with a form or practice. Something is done “pro forma” because it facilitates future dealings, even if it is not essential. For example, an invoice might be sent to a purchaser even before the goods are delivered as a matter of business practices.


A legal restriction against the use of something or against certain conduct. For example, in the 1920s, both the USA and Canada enacted liquor prohibitions, outlawing the manufacture or use of alcoholic beverages.


A person who is to be the beneficiary of a promise, an obligation or a contract. Synonymous to “obligee.”


The person who has become obliged through a promise (usually expressed in a contract) towards another, the intended beneficiary of the promise being referred to as the promisee. Also sometimes referred to an “obligor.”

Promissory note

An unconditional written and signed promise from the payor to a payee. It promises to pay a certain amount of money, on demand or at a certain defined date in the future. It differs from a bill of exchange, in that a promissory note is not drawn on any third party holding the payor’s money;


Legally, property is properly defined as a collection of legal rights over a thing, rather than a thing which belongs to someone and over which a person has total control. These rights are usually total and fully enforceable by the state or the owner against others. It has been said that “property and law were born and die together. Before laws were made there was no property. Take away laws and property ceases.” Property had no relevance before laws were written and enforced, possession was all that mattered. Property differences can be classified in many ways, the most common being between “real property” or “immoveable property” (real estate such as land or buildings) and “chattel”, or “moveable” (things which are not attached to the land such as a bicycle, a car or a hammer); and between public (property belonging to everybody or to the state) and private property.


Nearness in place; close by. Also used to describe relationships as synonymous for “kin.”

Pro possessore

Latin: As a possessor. For example, a person may possess a thing but not own it, and still may exercise certain rights over it “pro


To offer a document as being authentic or valid. Used mostly in the law of wills; to propound a will means to take legal action, as part of probate, including a formal inspection of the will, by the court.

Pro rata

Latin: to divide proportionate to a certain rate or interest. For example, in a company with 400 shareholders, 100 with 25% and 300 with 75% of the shares, if the company received a gift of $10,000 and desired to split it “pro rata” among the shareholders, the shareholders with 25% of the shares would receive $25 and the 75% shareholders, $75.

Pro se

Latin: in one’s personal behalf. Contrast with pro socio.

Pro socio

Latin: on behalf of a partner; not on one’s personal behalf.


To bring judicial proceedings against a person and to administer them until the conclusion of the court proceedings. Lawyers are hired by the government to administer the prosecution of criminal charges in the courts.


A document by a corporation setting out the material details of a share or bond issue and inviting the public to invest by purchasing these financial instruments.


A person who offers sexual intercourse for hire.

Pro tempore

Latin: something done temporarily only and not intended to be permanent.


A right signed over to an agent. Proxies are used frequently at annual meetings of corporations where the right to exercise a vote is “proxied” from the shareholder to the agent.

Public domain

Works in any medium that are not copyright protected under copyright law and are therefore free for all to use without permission. This can include works that were originally non-copyrightable (such as ideas, facts or names); copyrights that have been lost or expired; copyright owned or authored by the federal government (federal documents and publications are not copyrighted and so are public domain); and any works which have been specifically granted to the public domain.

Public law

Laws regulating (1) how the government is structured and administrated; (2) how the government conducts itself in its relations with its citizens; (3) the responsibilities of government employees; and (4) the government’s relationships with foreign governments. Criminal and constitutional law are both examples of public law. Private law is law which regulates the private conduct between individuals, without direct involvement of the government. The line between public and private law is sometimes very hard to draw. For example, an unsolicited attack on one’s person would constitute a crime for which the government would prosecute under criminal law, which is public law. However, under private law it would also be a situation in which there would be a private legal action possible by the injured party under tort law.

Punitive damages

Special and highly exceptional damages which are an exception to the rule that damages are to compensate not to punish. They are ordered by a court against a defendant when the act or omission which caused the suit, was of a particularly heinous, malicious or highhanded nature. Each jurisdiction sets its own threshold for the amount allowable. Generally, punitive damages are used in intentional torts such as rape, battery or defamation. In some countries, and in certain circumstances, punitive damages might even be available for breach of contract cases but, again, only for the exceptional cases where the court wants to give a strong message to the community that similar conduct will be severely punished. The term “exemplary damages” is used in some jurisdictions, and there is an ongoing legal debate whether there is a distinction to be made between the two and even with the concept of aggravated damages.