Legal Dictionary S


A word with two contradictory meanings. To “sanction” can mean to ratify or to approve but it can also mean to punish. The “sanction” of a crime refers to the actual punishment, usually expressed as a fine or jail term.


A special criminal law option available in medieval times to persons who had just committed, or been accused of, a crime, allowing them to seek refuge in a church or monastery for a proscribed period of time, usually 40 days. Even within sanctuary, there were very stringent rules. The fugitive had to remain within the walls of the sanctuary and in some cases had to stay within a specific area of the building. At the time sanctuary ended he was forced to abandon his or her oath to the king and might be allowed a short period of time to leave the country. Or he might have to escape by night and hope that he could flee the country without being captured. The fugitive was considered to be “dead”, his land was forfeited to the King and his spouse considered a widow. If he refused to renounce his oath, he could be starved out of the sanctuary. Henry VIII of England even took to branding them with a hot iron before they left the country just in case they tried to return; they could then be quickly spotted and arrested. Sanctuary was abolished from the common law in England in1624 and, in France, at the time of the Revolution. The principle of sanctuary continues today, in somewhat altered form, as diplomatic asylum under international law.


Latin for knowledge. In legal situations, the word is usually used to refer to “guilty knowledge”. For example, owners of vicious dogs may be liable for injuries caused by these dogs if they can prove the owner’s “scienter” (i.e. that the owner was aware, before the attack, of the dog’s vicious character).

Search warrant

A court order (i.e. signed by a judge) giving the police permission to enter private property in order to search for evidence of the commission of a crime, for the proceeds of crime, or for property that the police suspect may be used to commit a crime. These court orders are only obtained on the basis of a sworn statement by the requesting law enforcement officer and will precisely describe the place to be searched and, in some cases, the exact property being sought.


The legal possession of property. In law, the term refers more specifically to the ownership of land by a freeholder. For example, an owner of a building can have seisin, but a tenant cannot, because while the tenant may have possession, he does not have the legal title in the building.


The punishment given to a person who has been convicted (i.e. found to be guilty) of a crime. It may be time in jail, community service, a fine, and/or a period of probation.


The taking of someone’s property by court officers or into the possession of a disinterested third party until the outcome of a trial to decide ownership of that property. Sequestration can be voluntary, by deposit, or involuntarily, by seizure.

Servient tenement

The land which suffers or has the burden of an easement.


From Roman law, referring to rights of use over the property of another; a burden on a piece of land causing the owner to suffer access by another. An easement is type of servitude as is a profit á prendre.


The person who actually creates a trust by donating property to be managed and administered by a trustee but from which all profits would go to a beneficiary. The law books of some countries refer to this person as a “donor.”

Sexual harassment

A term used in human rights legislation and referring primarily to unsolicited words or conduct related to sex or gender which tend to annoy, alarm, or abuse another person in employment situations, thereby detrimentally affecting the working environment. The most overt variation of sexual harassment is the quid pro quo offer of work favor in exchange for sexual favor.

Sexual intercourse

Traditionally, penetration of a man’s penis into a woman’s vagina. The term has gradually been expanded to include other forms of sexual relationship.


A portion of a company bought by a transfer of cash in exchange for a certificate, called a common share or preferred share, the certificate constituting proof of share ownership. Those owning shares in a company are called “shareholders”. A shareholder is not liable for the debts or other obligations of the company except to the extent of any commitment made to buy shares. The two other benefits of shares include a right to participate in profits (through dividends) and the right to share the residue of assets of the company, once liabilities have been paid off, if it is ever dissolved.

Shareholder agreement

A contract between the shareholders of the company and the company itself, in which certain things, usually the purview of the board of directors, are detailed. The shareholder agreement will also, typically, control inflows to the company (purchase of shares), how profits are to be distributed, dispute resolution, and what to do if a shareholder dies.

Silent partner

A person who invests in a company or partnership, not taking part in administering or directing the organization, only sharing in the profits or losses.

Sine die

Adjourned with no future date of meeting or hearing given. A court that adjourns sine die is essentially stating that it never wants to hear the case again and thus dismissing the case. A meeting which adjourns sine die simply has not set a date for its next meeting.


Verbal or spoken defamation; opposed to libel, which is written defamation.

Slander of title

Intentionally casting aspersion on someone’s property, including real property, a business, or goods (the latter might also be called “slander of goods”). A form of jactitation. To intentionally state that a house is built badly or is on unsafe ground, in order to prevent its sale or lower the price, is a slander of title.


Unpaid servitude, in which one person (called “master”) has absolute power, including of life and liberty, over another (called “slave”). The slave has no freedom of action except within limits set by the master, no rights to the fruits of his own labor, is considered to be the property of the master (chattel), and can be sold, given away or killed. Slavery was once very common in the world but is now illegal in most countries, although still surprisingly prevalent.

Small claims

A regular court which has simplified rules of procedure and process to deal with claims of a lesser value. This allows for expedited hearings in the many jurisdictions which have established small claims courts. Because of their structure and reliance on deformalized proceedings, representation by lawyer is not required or encouraged. Some typical distinctive characteristics of small claims courts include the ability to serve by regular mail and to seize both a court and an adversary at far less cost than in ordinary courts.


A term of the feudal system which referred to the tenure which was exchanged for certain goods or services which were not military in nature. Socage is often described as “free and common socage” although the “free and common” qualification is now of a purely historical significance.


Synonymous with buggery and referring to “unnatural” sex acts, including copulation, either between two persons of the same sex or between a person and an animal (the latter act is known as “bestiality”). Most countries outlaw bestiality but homosexual activity is gradually being decriminalized.


A term more common to England than the United States. A lawyer that restricts his or her practice to the giving of legal advice and does not normally litigate. In England and some other Commonwealth jurisdictions, a legal distinction is made between solicitors and barristers, the former with exclusive privileges of giving oral or written legal advice, and the latter with exclusive privileges of preparing and conducting litigation in the courts. In other words, solicitors don’t appear in court on a client’s behalf and barristers don’t give legal advice to clients. In England, barristers and solicitors work as a team: the solicitor would typically make the first contact with a client and if the issue cannot be resolved and proceeds to trial, the solicitor would transfer the case to a barrister for the duration of the litigation. In the United States, lawyers, also referred to as attorneys, can litigate or give legal advice


A technical word for the monarch (king or queen) of a particular country as in “the Sovereign of England is Queen Elizabeth.” The other meaning of the word is to describe the supreme legislative powers of a state: that they are totally independent and free from any outside political control or authority over their decisions.

Split custody

A child custody decision giving parental care to both parents but on a revolving basis, such as every other month. The child will be passed back and forth between the parents according to a schedule set up by the court. Split custody is very rare (for example, only 5% of all custody orders in the USA) because it works against consistent upbringing decisions for the child. Also known as “divided custody” although the latter concept is mostly used to describe split custody over greater periods of time such as alternate years with each parent.

Standing committee

A term of parliamentary law referring to those committees which have a continued existence and are not related to the accomplishment of a specific, once-only task as are ad hoc or special committees. Standing committees generally exist as long as the organization to which they report. Budget and finance or nomination committees are typical standing committees of a larger organization.

Stare decisis

Latin: A binding precedent; must be followed. A basic principle of the law whereby once a decision (a precedent) on a certain set of facts has been made, the courts will apply that decision in cases which subsequently come before it embodying the same set of facts.


A term of international law: those groups of people which have acquired international recognition as an independent country and which have four characteristics; permanent and large population with, generally, a common language; a defined and distinct territory; a sovereign government with effective control; and a capacity to enter into relations with other states (i.e. recognized by other states). The USA, Canada and China are examples of states. States are the primary subjects of international law. The United Nations is comprised of all the states of the world. Some large states have subdivided into smaller units each having limited legislative powers normally restricted to subjects which are more properly regulated at a local, rather than a national level. Thus, the states of the USA are not really “states” under international law. It is common for the general public and English dictionaries to use the word “nations” to refer to what international law calls “states.”


The written laws approved by legislatures, parliaments or houses of assembly (i.e., politicians). Also known as “legislation”.

Statutory rape

A definition of rape defined by statute rather than common law. It includes wider definitions to reflect modern values. The common law definition of rape is limited to sex without consent and with a woman, and only where the victim is not the wife of the rapist. Many states have enacted laws for statutory rape which include under the charge of rape, sex with a minor even if done with the minor’s consent; sex without consent regardless of whether the victim is male or female; and sex without consent regardless of the matrimonial bond between victim and rapist.

Statutory trust

A trust created by a statute, usually temporary in nature and serving the purpose of bridging ownership of property to benefit a certain class of individuals which the statute is designed to protect. Some examples are: the temporary trusts that the law of some states impose on the executor of an estate; the holding and administration of tax or other pay deductions (including vacation pay) by employers; the trust accounts of lawyers; and the statutory trust on money paid for a construction project on behalf of any person who might have a construction lien on the property.


Latin: the offspring of a person; his or her descendants. For example, inheriting per stirpes means having a right to a deceased’s estate because you are a descendant of the deceased. A common phrase in wills.

Strict liability

Tort liability which is set upon the defendant if it is proved that it was the defendant’s object that caused the damage. There is no need under strict liability to also prove intent, negligence, or fault.


The feudal system of tenure, whereby a person receiving a grant of land from a lord, could himself become a lord by subdividing and subletting that land to others.

Sub judice

A matter that is still under consideration by a court. You will hear of politicians declining to speak on a certain subject because the subject matter is “sub judice”.


To be subject to the orders or direction of another; of lower rank.


Latin: “under penalty”. An order of a court which requires a person to be present at a certain time and place or suffer a penalty. This is the traditional tool used by lawyers to ensure that witnesses present themselves at a given place, date and time to make themselves available to testify (see also duces tecum).


To pay off someone else’s debt and then try to get the money from the debtor yourself. (Compare with “novation”.)
Subservient tenement
The real property that supports or endures an easement. The real property benefiting from an easement is called the dominant tenement.

Substituted service

If a party appears to be avoiding service of court documents, a request may be made with the court for substituted service. This includes, instead of personal service (i.e. giving the document directly to the person), that the document be published in a local newspaper; served on a person believed to frequent the person; or mailed to his (or her) last known address.


A person who takes over the rights of another.

Sui juris

A person who possesses full civil rights and is not under any legal incapacity such as being bankrupt, of minor age or mental incapacity. Most adults are sui juris.


In the USA, this is one of the initial documents issued in a civil suit; giving the defendant notice of the claim and an opportunity to defend it. The summons also gives the court which issues it the authority to dispose of the matter


The person who has pledged him or herself to pay back money or perform a certain action if the principal to a contract fails, as collateral, and as part of the original contract. Technically, where a person provides collateral after or before the original contract is signed, and as a separate contract, the person is called a “guarantor” and not a “surety.”

Synallagmatic contract

A civil law term for a reciprocal or bilateral contract: one in which both parties provide consideration. A contract of sale is a classic example, where one party provides money and the other, goods or services. A gift is not a synallagmatic contract.