Glossary of Legal Terms



Absconding debtors

  • Persons who owe money who are attempting to leave the country.


  • Where the parent who does not keep the children is allowed to be with them for periods of time. Access is the right of the child to be with and spend time with the parent who does not keep them.

Accession to a Treaty

  • When a State (country) agrees to a treaty, it is usually a two-step process: first, signing the treaty, and later on, ratifying it. (This is like a person getting engaged to be married, and later on, getting married). Accession to a treaty means a State does both steps at once. Accession to a treaty has the same legal effect as ratification of a treaty.

Access parent

  • The parent who the child does not normally live with i.e non-custodial parent.


  • A legal term given to a person charged with a criminal offence. Other terms used are sometimes the "accused" or the "defendant".


  • The finding or decision of a criminal court that there is not enough evidence produced by the prosecution to convict the defendant of a criminal offence. Once acquitted the offender (e.g rapist ) is found not guilty of the offence he is charged with and he is free to leave when he is released by the court.


  • Legal proceedings taken in a court; a dispute taken to court.


  • In this book it means persons who do human rights work and/or who work with NGO's to promote human rights.


  • Putting off a court hearing until a later date.


  • Presiding over judicial proceedings.


  • The term used when a married person has sexual intercourse with someone other than his or her husband or wife (spouse).


  • A written statement to be used as evidence. The maker of the statement swears or affirms its truth before a commissioner of oaths, a solicitor, or a court official, who then witnesses the persons signature.

Affidavit of means

  • A written statement indicating the financial and property status of the person signing which is used as evidence.

Affiliation Order

  • An order granted by a court where the father of a child born to a single woman (or a women who is separated from her husband) outside marriage. The legal term for the father of the child is 'Putative father'. He can be ordered to pay money to the child for the child's support. The court order stating the amount of maintenance to be paid by a male to a single unmarried mother when she proves that the male is the father of her natural child.

Affirmative action

  • A policy, practice or law that seeks to increase the representation of disadvantaged groups in areas of employment, education and business from which they have been historically excluded


  • A foreigner, a person who is not a citizen.


  • To change the written laws (legislation).

Amicus curiae

  • Friend of the Court who is able to help a person needing assistance in court.


  • Action incidental to some pre-existing cause of action. The pre-existing action is called 'principal relief'.


  • To challenge a decision of a court as being incorrect. An appeal lies from a lower court to a higher court.


  • A person who starts a court case.


  • The document beginning a court case, filed by the applicant.

Arrears of maintenance

  • When maintenance under a court order is not paid the amount owing is said to be the arrears of maintenance.

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  • To release a person suspected of having committed a crime from prison or police custody whilst awaiting a court hearing. Bail is sometimes given on certain conditions e.g. to report to a police station. Failure to appear for trial after bail is granted can lead to loss of any bond of security.


  • A court official who serves legal documents.


  • The name given to a lawyer who receives instructions from a solicitor and a client to appear in court on behalf of the client and represent the client. The Bar is the collective word used to describe all the barristers who work in the court as a group.

Bill of rights

  • A statement of fundamental rights and liberties.
  • The International Bill of Human Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols.
  • Many countries also have their own Bill of Rights as part of their Constitutions.


  • To disobey a court order or agreement.

Burden of proof

  • The legal obligation or duty of a prosecutor or plaintiff in proving a case before the courts. The standard in civil cases is on 'the balance of probabilities', whilst in criminal cases, the burden is 'beyond all reasonable doubt'. The standard is less in civil cases.

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Care and control

  • Day-to-day responsibility for children. This responsibility is given to the parent the children live with.


  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979.

Children's interview

  • When the judge or magistrate has private discussions with the children about custody and access.

Civil law

  • The law administered by the courts whereby individual grievances between citizens are settled. A civil wrong is sometimes known as a "Tort". Examples are negligence, nuisance, personal injuries, company and commercial matters, family and succession (when someone dies).

Civil rights (or civil liberties)

  • The rights of citizens to political and social freedoms and equality.

Civil wrong

  • Wrong doing by one individual against another, in which an individual can ask a court for compensation in the civil courts. Sometimes also called a "tort" e.g., nuisance, trespass or negligence.

Committal hearing

  • This is a preliminary hearing where all the evidence is given, normally by hearing from witnesses. The magistrate then decides if there is enough evidence for the accused to stand trial. Sometimes this is called a "P.I."

Common law

  • The body of law made by virtue of the decisions of the courts. Referred to sometimes as "judge made law".

Competent to give evidence

  • A person who is able by law to give evidence in legal proceedings.


  • The person who complains of a criminal or civil wrong. Used to describe the process of starting proceedings e.g. someone who reports a crime to the police or makes a claim in the domestic court e.g., a complaint for an affiliation order.


  • To obey a court order or act in accordance with an agreement.


  • A method of dispute resolution by means of discussion and settlement without going to the courts.

Conjugal rights

  • Rights of spouses over each other.


  • By agreement of all persons.


  • The duties and obligations owed by one spouse to another.


  • The term used in domestic or family court to confirm that the married couple have had sexual intercourse (SI). A marriage is not consummated until the married couple have sexual intercourse. One act of SI will consummate the marriage.


  • Acting in disregard of or disobeying a court order. Contempt can be a criminal offence. It can include showing disrespect to a judge within the court room.

Contested action

  • An action where one marriage partner does not agree with all or part of the application of the other partner.


  • The offender is found guilty of the crime he has been charged with.


  • The one who is having a sexual relationship with the husband or wife.


  • Confirmation of a statement made by someone by other evidence. Some evidence that tends to support the evidence given by another. An example of corroborative evidence would be where a woman is raped and she says in court, she was raped. In court, another person gives evidence that they saw the accused with the survivor shortly before the rape and again afterwards when she had torn clothing and was in a distressed condition.


  • Another name for a barrister who may be prosecutor or defense counsel.


  • An unlawful act or default which is an offence against the public and which makes the person guilty of the act liable to legal punishment.

Criminal law

  • That law that effects the relationship between the State and an individual. Criminal law sets out behaviour that is not accepted by the State and the courts impose a penalty for breach which can be imprisonment or a fine.

Cross examination

  • The practice of a lawyer questioning a witness in court after they have told their story (given testimony). The person cross-examining the witness can ask all sorts of questions to try and challenge what they have said. Cross-examination can only be by the party to the case that did not call the witness into court (the opposing party or lawyer).

Cross petition

  • The response to a petition.

Custodial Parent

  • The parent who is awarded legal custody of the child in a dispute. The other parent is then called the access or non-custodial parent.


  • The right of one or both parents to have control of the children of their marriage and therefore the physical and actual case of these children.

Custody order

  • An order which allows a parent to have guardianship of his or her child (day to day care and control).

Custom courts

  • Refers to either informal courts which exist informally at village level or formal courts which are authorized to apply customary law.

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De facto

  • In fact.

De facto relationship

  • Living together as husband and wife but not legally married.


  • Money ordered to be paid by the Court by one party to a court action to another.

De jure

  • In law.


  • The court order for divorce. The decree nisi, in which the Family Court approves the divorce application, is followed three months later by decree absolute, which makes the divorce final.

Decree absolute

  • The final court order bringing a legal marriage to an end allowing the person divorced to remarry.

Decree nisi

  • A provisional decree, which will be made absolute on motion unless cause be shown against it. Interlocutory judgement or decree in divorce action. It remains imperfect for a certain period and then, unless sufficient cause be shown it is made absolute on motion, and the dissolution takes effect, subject to appeal.


  • The rendering of an act as non-criminal, a civil wrong rather than a criminal offence.


  • The defendant's case or the legal representative who acts for the defendant.
  • A person who is prosecuted or who has court proceedings brought against him or her.


  • The term used to describe unlawful sexual relations with a girl who is under the legal age upon which it considered lawful to have sexual intercourse.


  • The term for a civil wrong or tort in Roman Law.


  • The act of leaving a husband or wife; staying apart without just cause.


  • The personal quality of being worthy of honour and respect. If a human being is being treated with dignity, the person’s status as a human being is respected.


  • Treating people differently because of an actual or assumed characteristic such as race, sex, language, age, disability, sexual orientation or religion.
  • In a human rights context, discrimination usually refers to unfavourable treatment. Positive discrimination is also possible (e.g. an employer chooses to employ people with disabilities to help address the under-representation of people with disabilities in employment).

Discretionary, discretion

  • A decision left to the individual judge.


  • To give different treatment against a person for a characteristic e.g. on account of sex, political opinion, race etc.


  • Another term for divorce i.e. ending a legal marriage.


  • An order from the court that legally finishes or ends a legal marriage; sometimes called "dissolution of the marriage".


  • This stands for Director of Public Prosecutions. Someone from the DPP's office will present the case for the Prosecution.

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  • A process by which individuals and communities take greater control over the decisions that affect their lives. It often involves individuals developing economic, political and social knowledge and skills (capacity).
  • Regarding gender equality, empowerment refers to when both women and men take control over their lives - setting their own agendas, gaining skills, building self-confidence, solving problems and developing self-reliance.


  • Make secure.


  • Fair, just, non discriminatory


  • an interest in land.

Estate holder

  • One with an interest in land.


  • The events and statements produced to support a legal action.

Evidentiary requirements

  • The body of rules which governs the introduction of evidence in court.

Ex parte

  • An application to the court by one party to the proceedings without the other party being present.

Ex parte custody order

  • An interim custody order given by the court to one parent before the other parent has had an opportunity to put his or her case to the court.


  • The practice of questioning and cross-questioning by both sides of the court.

Exclusion order (occupation order)

  • An order requiring someone to vacate or leave a house, flat, land or an apartment; also called an "ouster order".

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  • A very serious crime, e.g. rape, murder.

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  • Sex roles created by culture rather than by one's biological sex.

Gender equality

  • When women and men have equal access to realising their full human rights and for contributing to, and benefiting from, economic, social, cultural and political development. The outcome of gender equality is that there is no discrimination based on gender.

Gender equity 

  • This means that there are no differences in life outcomes for women and men. It recognises that equality of opportunity may not necessarily result in equality of outcome. It is a process to ensure gender equality is achieved.

Gender identity

  • Refers to a person’s feelings and experiences of their gender, which may or may not correspond with their sex. It includes someone’s personal sense of their body (which may involve changing their appearance or sexual characteristics) and other expressions of their gender, including their dress, speech and mannerisms.


  • Referring to both genders a word indicating male or female or both. In other words applying to both male and female.

General law

  • That body of law, as opposed to customary law, modelled on the English legal system.


  • The period of pregnancy.


  • The office, duty or authority of a guardian. A person lawfully invested with the power and charged with the duty, of taking care of the person and managing the property and rights of another person, who for defect of age, understanding or self-control, is considered incapable of administering his own affairs. One who legally has responsibility for the care and management of the person, or the estate or both, of a child during its minority.


  • If the accused is found to have broken the law he will be found guilty. The Judge will decide what punishment he or she should have.

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Habeus corpus

  • Legal proceedings taken in the superior courts which orders a person detained or thought to be detained to be brought before the court.


  • The actual court case; the proceedings taking place in court.


  • Concluded, made the decision.


  • Inherited.


  • The killing of a human being.

Human rights

  • The group of rights and freedoms that are universal to all people. They are agreed international standards that recognise and help to protect the dignity and integrity of every individual, without any distinction.

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  • International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1966 and came into force in March 1976.


  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1966 and came into force in January 1976.


  • Refers to children born outside legal marriage.


  • When a person or organisation is exempt or immune from punishment, blame or any unpleasant consequences of their wrong, or illegal, activities.

In camera

  • When a court hears a case without the public being present. When the public are present the court is said to be hearing the matter in "open court."

In loco parentis

  • In the place of a parent; instead of a parent; charged, fictitiously with a parent's rights, duties and responsibilities.


  • Unable to be taken away, given away or sold by the possessor.


  • Cannot be separated. The human rights identified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are indivisible as they are a complete package and all are necessary to live a human life of dignity and justice. It is incorrect to support some rights and ignore others.


  • Sexual intercourse between blood relatives and other closely linked person which is forbidden by law.


  • To include by law.


  • The killing of children under the age of 12 months.


  • A court order requiring someone NOT to do something or stop doing something.


  • A court order requiring someone to do or refrain from doing something.


  • The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

Inter alia

  • Among other things.

Inter se

  • The Scottish term for injunction.


  • Forbid, outlaw.


  • An interest in land recognized by virtue of fairness.


  • "In the meantime." An interim order in a court case is made before the full hearing of the case, when a final order will be made. The hearing for an interim order is sometimes called an interlocutory application.

Interim custody

  • Awarding of custody of a child to a parent temporarily, pending the outcome of a separation or divorce action.


  • Dying without leaving a will.


  • Unlawful or void.

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Joint custody

  • Joint custody involves both parents sharing responsibility and authority with respect to the children.

Joint interest injunction

  • Court order requiring a person to do or not do something.

Joint tenant

  • Describes the situation where two or more people have an interest in some land or property. They own it together, if one dies then the other(s) take the land or item in equal shares.


  • The Judge is the person in charge of the Trial. The Judge's job is to make sure the Trial is run fairly. He or she may interrupt if legal arguments start between the accused's lawyer and the Prosecutor or if either side disobeys the rules of the court. Judges sit in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.


  • Decisions of the court.

Judicial separation

  • In that it makes both husband and wife single persons again for all legal purposes. Unlike a divorce, it does not allow either party to remarry. It is also called legal separation.

Judicial officers

  • Judges and Magistrates.

Judicial separation

  • Similar to divorce it is a court order that makes both husband and wife "single persons" again for legal purposes. Unlike a divorce, it does not allow either party to remarry as the marriage continues. It is also called legal separation.


  • Lay persons selected from the electoral rolls to make a legal finding of guilt or liability in a trial.

Jury trial

  • Court case/trial involving a jury.

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  • A special set of rules which affect everyone in a country and regulates the way we behave.


  • A general word for solicitors and barristers.

Legal right

  • Right recognized at law; often distinguished from an equitable right (see above).

Legal separation

  • It is another term to describe a judicial separation.

Legally binding

  • An agreement between two or more parties (usually written) that is enforceable by law.

Legally enforceable

  • An agreement or legal claim is legally enforceable when a court of law accepts that it has the power to make an order stating that one party has broken the agreement or has broken the law, and therefore the other party should receive compensation or the benefit of a court order (e.g. that land or other property be returned).


  • That body of law made by the parliamentary process, also called statute. Written laws passed by Parliament or other legislative bodies lay justice or magistrate: non-legally qualified adjudicator.


  • Elected law making body.


  • Describes the lawfulness or authenticity of something. For example, when you question whether something is lawful or permitted, this is an example of questioning the legitimacy of the action.

Lenient sentence

  • Light punishment.


  • Acronym – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer


  • Legal responsibility.


  • Person involved in legal (court) proceedings.


  • A word with the same meaning as "action".

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  • The person who hears action and makes decisions in Magistrates' Courts.

Magistrates' courts

  • The lower courts that deal with minor criminal offences such as trespass, stealing etc.and civil matters of a limited jurisdiction.


  • Money paid by one marriage partner for the support of the other partner and/or the children of the marriage.

Maintenance order

  • Order against a person requiring him or her to pay a sum suitable to maintain another; usually awarded against one spouse for the benefit of the other and the children.


  • No element of choice or discretion; to be contrasted with discretionary.


  • Refers to death which is unintended. A criminal offence less serious than murder.

Married woman's order

  • An order granted to a married woman, who is in a legally recognized marriage, if she can show the court her husband has committed one or more grounds of matrimonial offences e.g. adultery, persistent cruelty, etc.

Matrilineal societies

  • Communities where some rights are inherited through the female line.

Matrimonial offence/ground

  • A reason for obtaining a divorce.

Matrimonial property

  • The property jointly acquired by marriage partners.


  • A process involving mediators not based on the traditional adversarial court process. In a mediation decisions are arrived at by consensus and agreement.

Mens rea

  • The criminal intention to commit a crime: the mens rea and the actus reus (or criminal act) together make the crime.


  • Any occasion other than a full hearing on which some attention is given by the court to an application. It may be very brief; such as setting a date for the next mention or a hearing or it may involve taking some evidence and result in orders being made.

Minority group

  • A group of people that differ (or are assumed to differ) in some way from the majority of the population, or any part of the whole population that is smaller than the other parts.


  • The security provided by a borrower in exchange for monies borrowed.

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Natural child

  • Illegitimate child born outside legal marriage.


  • The principle of treating all people fairly and not making unreasonable distinctions based on characteristics such as a person’s colour, nationality, sex, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, etc.

Non-molestation order

  • An order to compel someone to stop harassing or molesting another.


  • Document providing information about a court or legal action.


  • Where there was a legal defect in the marriage e.g. already married or under the minimum age; or their partner has a condition at the date of marriage that they did not know about e.g. they had VD or she was pregnant by another person; the person can ask the court to order the marriage to be declared a nullity, i.e., it no longer exists.

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  • A statement sworn by a person to be true.

Obiter dictum

  • A statement of opinion by a judge which is not relevant to the case being tried; a statement which is not of the same authority as if it had been relevant (to be distinguished form ratio decidendi).

Optional Protocol

  • A protocol is a treaty that adds to an existing treaty. It may be on any topic relevant to the original treaty. It is optional because it is not automatically binding on States (countries) that have ratified the original treaty. They must independently ratify or accede to a protocol for it to become binding.

Originating summons

  • A legal document commencing proceedings in a court.

Ouster order

  • See exclusion order.

Overrides/prevails over

  • Has more authority than.

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  • A person with a special legal training working in the field of law but who is not a fully qualified lawyer.


  • Persons involved in a dispute.


  • Of the father.


  • The rule of the fathers, male controlled and defined.


  • Communities where some rights are inherited through the male line.


  • A false statement made under oath during a trial. Perjury is a crime.

Permanent custody

  • The care, control and maintenance of a child which may be awarded by a court to one of the parents as in a divorce or separation proceeding.

Personal property

  • All property except land.


  • A request for a court order or a ruling on a case from the court.


  • The person who presents a petition or case to court in a civil case, normally used in divorce and some other civil proceedings, the plaintiff.


  • The person who brings or takes a civil claim to court.


  • Improvements to property.


  • Multiple marriages between one woman and many men.


  • Multiple marriages between one man and many women.


  • multiple marriages


  • After birth.


  • A legal principle which future courts of law are bound to follow in making decisions. The law is based on the principle of precedent and stare decisis - what has gone before must be followed. Thus if a Court, particularly a lower court, comes across a similar fact situation it is obliged to follow the legal principles established in the earlier case to make a decision on the case currently before it.

Prima facie

  • "As it first appears," a prima facie claim is one that "as it first appears" to be a proper or supportable claim but without going into a detailed examination. Even though the claim may be proper, "prima facie", later once the matter is heard in detail it cannot be proved to be true.

Principal claim

  • The main claim in a court action; to be contrasted with ancillary relief.


  • A criminal process brought by a private citizen.

Privileged evidence

  • Communication between certain parties e.g. spouses that cannot be brought into court as evidence.

Procurator fiscal

  • A Scottish professional prosecutor.


  • The party in a court case who's function it is to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of the court e.g. the Police or Director of Public Prosecutions.


  • The lawyer or policeman prosecuting the case.

Public defender

  • The individual employed by the state to act as defense counsel.

Putative father

  • A man found by the court to be the father of a child born outside marriage.

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  • An action midway between the criminal and civil law.

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Rape trauma syndrome

  • A term used to describe the response of a victim of sexual assault which appears unusual. Typically, the victim of the syndrome behaves coolly and dispassionately after the attack rather than in a stereotypical fashion. See, further Rowland, J., Rape: the Ultimate Violation, Pluto Press, 1983.

Ratio decidendi

  • The reason for the judicial decision.

Re Trial

  • A new trial of an action which has already been once tried.


  • Refers to the tendency of persons to repeat committing crimes.


  • Second consideration of cause for purpose of calling to court's or administrative board's attention any error, omission or oversight in first consideration. A retrial of issues which presumes notice to parties entitled thereto and opportunity for them to be heard.


  • The means by which a right is enforced or the violation of a right is prevented; redressed or compensated.

Res judicata

  • A matter adjudged; a thing judicially acted upon or decided; a thing or matter settled by judgement.


  • The person who a claim is brought against. The Person who an appeal is filed against.

Restitution of conjugal rights

  • An order requiring a party to return to the marital relationship.

Restraining order

  • An injunction stopping a person from doing something.

Rule of law

  • The principle that all people and the government are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced. No-one is above the law.

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  • A scheme providing monetary compensation for a criminal wrong.


  • Saying things which have a tendency to show guilt on the part of the person saying things.

Separate representation

  • Representation of a witness or a person interested in a trial by someone other than the defense or prosecution counsel.

Service of documents

  • Giving documents to other parties in a dispute.

Sexual orientation

  • A person’s sexual orientation is their emotional and sexual attraction to, and sexual relationships with, people of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender. There are many words used to describe people with different sexual orientations, but the most common term is the acronym LGBTIQ (or LGBT), which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer.

Sine die

  • Indefinitely.


  • Anal intercourse, sometimes called buggery.


  • Another term used for an Act of Parliament (legislation).

Summary court

  • Magistrates' or lower court


  • A document issued by the court to someone ordering them to appear before the court or to bring a document to court.

Suspended sentence

  • When the offender does not have to serve a prison sentence unless he commits the same offence within a specified period of time.

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Temporary special measures (TSMs)

  • These are practices or actions which are taken to achieve substantive equality when there has been historical discrimination against a particular group. The action might temporarily benefit that group in order for it to obtain a more equal outcome.

Tenants in common

  • Where two or more people own land or property item and own a distinct share which can be left by them on death. They own an identifiable share.


  • Spoken evidence given under oath, normally in a court.


  • A civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, which gives rise to the right to bring an action in the civil courts.


  • A legally binding written agreement between two or more States. Also called convention, covenant and protocol.

Treaty bodies

  • Groups of experts established by human rights treaties with responsibility for reviewing the implementation of treaties by particular States (countries).


  • The trial is the hearing where it is decided whether the accused has broken the law or not.

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  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948. It states our fundamental human rights.


  • United Nations Development Program. The UNDP is the United Nations’ global development network, advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build better lives.


  • United Nations Children’s Fund. UNICEF’s vision is of a world where the rights of every child are met. UNICEF is the world’s largest provider of vaccines for children in developing countries. It supports child health and nutrition, clean water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and HIV.


  • Applies to every person in the world.


  • User rights (not ownership rights).

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Vicarious liability

  • Liability which is imposed because one person is responsible for the actions of another. For example, an employer is vicariously liable for the actions of his employees.


  • When speaking of human rights, violation means denying or breaching (breaking) someone’s human rights.

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Wards of court

  • Infants and persons of unsound mind placed by the court under the care of a guardian (In loco parentis).


  • Document issued by a magistrate or other legal official, allowing the police to take certain actions e.g. search warrant.


  • A person who is legally compelled to give evidence in a trial. A wife may be a competent witness, in the sense that she is legally able to give evidence, but she may not be compellable.


  • A document issued to commence civil proceedings in the superior courts e.g. The High Court.

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SPC’s Regional Rights Resource Team receives core funding from the Australian Government and additional project support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Pacific Leadership Programme (PLP), European Union (EU) and the German Development Bank (KfW).