English law vocabulary

For anyone who needs to read and sign legal a contract at some point in their life (and that’s everyone), knowing some business legal English is useful.

Take a look at our vocabulary guide below, to help your student understand business court cases and contracts.

Court cases in business

We don’t have this idea of ‘a demand’ in English. Instead, to institute legal proceedings we use the verb ‘to sue.’

For example,

‘She sued the company she worked for when they fired her without a reason.’

Another way to say this is, ‘to take someone to court,’ or, ‘to file a lawsuit.’

More vocabulary

To have grounds to take legal action – to have enough evidence and reason to take someone to court.

‘Infidelity is grounds for divorce, as is unreasonable behaviour of one or both parties.’

A litigator – A lawyer who prepares cases for trial.

Litigation – The process of taking legal action.

‘Litigation is a time-consuming and costly business, so it’s best to avoid it if you can.’

The merits of the case – The elements or grounds of a claim or defence.

‘The merits of the case are that we have an email chain between the CEO and the CFO about the disparities in the company pension fund.’

To outlaw – to make something illegal.

‘Capital punishment was outlawed in the UK in the 1950s.’

A ruling/ to rule – the result given by a judge in a case.

‘The judge ruled against the company and awarded the victims a large sum of money.’

To set a precedent – to decide something that will be used as an example or rule to be followed in the future.

‘This animal rights case set the precedent for all cases in the future, outlawing animals to be used in circuses.  

Speaking practice

Ask your student to choose one or two of these landmark US legal cases and ask them to explain it to you next lesson, using their own research.

Questions to ask:

  • What was the case? What were the opposing arguments?
  • What was the outcome and why?
  • How did it change the US?
  • Are there any signs that this precedent could be revoked?

Alternatively, ask your student to research a case from their own country and explain it to you.


To be open to interpretation if there can be several meanings interpreted by a clause.

‘This part in the agreement is open to interpretation, because it doesn’t pinpoint when the service contract should end.’

To break an agreement – to break the terms in a contract or agreement.

To change the wording – to change the words in a sentence to clarify it or change the meaning slightly.

‘My lawyer changed the wording in the final clause of the agreement because it wasn’t clear.’

To clarify a point – to make a point clear.

‘We need to clarify point seven in this legal document.’

The devil is in the detail – an idiom to mean that something written might seem simple at a first but will take more time and effort to complete than expected.

This franchise contract seemed simple at first, but the devil is in the detail. Look, we have to complete a lot more steps than we first thought.’

To draw up a contract – to create a contract.

‘The lawyer drew up a contract for the sale of the house.’

The fine print – The part of an agreement usually in small, light print that is not easily noticeable, referring to disclaimers, restrictions, or limitations.

To pinpoint an issue – to discover or explain exactly what something is.

‘We need to pinpoint exactly what the terms of the agreement are.’

A sticking point – when two parties can’t agree on a part in a contract, meaning that they cannot move forward until it is resolved.

‘The sticking point in the divorce was who took custody of the dog.’

Speaking practice

Ask your student to explain to you the last contract they drew up or signed.

  • What was the issue?
  • What were the sticking points?
  • Did they check the fine print? What did it contain?

People involved in a court case

Interested parties – the people or organisations involved in the case or who have something to gain or lose from the result.

A conflict of interest – a situation in which the concerns or aims of two different parties are incompatible.

‘I cannot represent you in this lawsuit because I have connections to the organisation you are suing. Therefore, there is a conflict of interest.’

What business legal English have we missed? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.