An Introduction to Criminal Law Terms in English and Chinese (+ Glossary)

The following is an introduction to commonly used terms in criminal law (刑法) that I’ve collected over the years of translating and teaching interpreting. The focus is mainly on vocabulary common in Australian and British law. At the end of this post is a glossary of all the terms mentioned (150 in total!)

Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert by any means, nor do I claim to be. The explanations and translations given here should be used for reference only. If you see anything that you think is inaccurate don’t hesitate to leave a comment in the comments section. I look forward hearing your feedback.

An Introduction to Criminal Law Terms in English and Chinese

Firstly, it is important to note the distinction between criminal law (刑法) and civil law (民法). Many Chinese students are confused about this because there is no distinction between prosecute or indict (the 起诉 process in criminal law) and sue (i.e. to file a lawsuit against someone, also known as 起诉 in Chinese, but can also be expressed as 诉讼, 打官司 or just 告 or 诉 in Taiwan). However in countries like Australia and Britain, the two processes are entirely different, with different terminology, criteria and penalties. Chinese also does not always make a distiction between a public trial and an interrogation in private – both can be referred to as 审讯.

Also keep in mind that in Chinese a distinction is often made between a public prosecution (公诉) and a private prosecution (自诉). The form of prosecution is chosen according to whether the case is in the public interest or whether it is a private matter. However in English-speaking countries most prosecutions are public ones, with private prosecutions rarely being sought.

Now let’s talk a bit about the types of criminal offences (罪行) in Australia. If the police wish to press charges (or file, or lay charges; 指控 [v.]; 罪名 [n.]) against someone, they first need to determine how many counts (项) will be filed. For example, the person could be charged with two counts of murder (两项谋杀罪). Since murder is considered an indictable offence (可检控罪;可诉讼罪) as it is a serious crime, a judge (法官), addressed ‘Your Honour’ (阁下), and jury (陪审团) will need to be present. This is in distinct contrast with a summary offence (简易罪;简易程序罪;即决罪), a less serious offence such as drink driving (酒醉驾驶), or in the case of someone receiving an infringement notice (罚单). A serious offence is also known as a felony (重罪), while a minor offence is also known as a misdemeanour (轻罪). Summary offences always start – and usually finish in – a magistrate’s court (地方法庭), the lowest court in Australia, of which there are many around the country.

Speaking of courts, I recommend students take the time to memorise a basic version of the Australian court hierarchy. At the very bottom is the Magistrate’s Court (地方法庭) where most cases will start. The next rung up on the ladder is the District Court, or County Court as it is known in Victoria (中级法庭), then the Supreme Court (最高法庭) of which there is only one in each state. At the very top is the High Court of Australia (联邦最高法庭), located in Canberra. Other types of courts include family courts (家事法庭), drug courts (毒品法庭),  children’s courts (儿童法庭), tribunals (仲裁庭) and commissions (委员会). Most courts are open courts (公开法庭), the most common exception being children’s courts which are set up as closed courts (非公开法庭) to protect the anonymity of the children attending. The complete Australian court hierarchy is much more complex than this, but knowing the names of these courts will more than suffice.

Now let’s introduce some of the more common criminal law vocabulary. First it is important to remember that in Chinese a distinction is made between “a person commits a crime” (犯罪) and “a crime is committed” (案发). After the person breaks the law (违法), someone may report it to the police (报警), who will then investigate the crime (侦查;调查犯罪). The police officer (警员) who arrives on scene could be a low-ranking constable (警官), or a sergeant (沙展). If it is a serious crime a detective (侦探) may be called to investigate, possibly as part of a homicide squad (凶杀案组). Whoever is called on scene, their role will be to identify the offender (识别罪犯), or if they’re lucky they may be able to catch the offender red-handed (当场捕获). Afterwards, they must be sure to preserve the crime scene (保护案发现场) – that is, prevent it being contaminated (被破坏).

But identifying the offender – that is, the criminal or perpetrator (罪犯;犯人) – is not the only step in this process. The victim (受害者) may assist the police in identifying both the culprit (主犯) and the accomplice (同犯;从犯) if there is one. The police will then interview (询问;盘问;质询) or interrogate (询问;审讯) the suspects (嫌疑犯) to see if they have an alibi (不在场证明). Beforehand, they will be sure to determine if the person has a criminal record (犯罪记录;案底), also known as priors (前科). If the person confesses to the crime (供认有罪) and comes clean (坦白交代), the officer would then have the person make an oral or written statement (声明;陈述;口供;笔供) which may later be used in court as a testimony (证词) or an affidavit (宣誓书;担保书).

Obviously an important part of investigating a crime involves gathering evidence (收集证据). In homicide cases (杀人案;他杀案) the police may need to determine what the murder weapon (凶器) is, as well gather testimonies from eye-witnesses (目击者) and other witnesses (证人). A forensics (法医) team may also be called in. Any piece of evidence that is gathered is known as an exhibit (物证). A coroner (验尸官) will then be enlisted to determine the cause of death (死因) – e.g. death by natural causes (自然死亡) or unnatural death (非自然死亡).

In terms of how suspects are dealt with, there are a number of possible courses of action. If the police only wish to issue a warning, they could caution (警告) them. But if they wish to lay charges, the person could be arrested (apprehended; 逮捕), or the police may consider issuing an arrest warrant against them (发出拘捕令) instead. Once the suspect is arrested they may be detained or put in custody (拘留), though they can ask for bail (保释), or in some cases apply to be released on bail for medical treatment (保外就医).

Now let’s move on to talk about what happens after the case is solved (侦破) and goes to court (法庭). Those who are asked to appear in court (出庭), or are summoned to court or issued a subpoena (传唤), will be given a mention date (过堂日期). The process of their case being heard or tried (审理) is known as a hearing or trial (庭审;审判;审讯). On one side of the court is the prosecutor (检控官); on the other, the defense (辩护人), that is, the person standing trial (受审). These two parties are also known as the plaintiff, or the accuser (原告), and the defendant, or the accused (被告). The accused could have legal representation (法律代表) – either by paying for a lawyer (律师) or barrister (高级律师), or requesting legal aid (法律援助) – or they could represent themselves (known as self-representation: 自己代表). Anyone who gives evidence in court must take an oath or affirmation (宣誓) beforehand. Giving evidence in the witness box (证人席) is known as testifying (作证).

The judge’s role in court is to interpret the law (诠释法律) and give a ruling (裁决) in line with the facts of the case (案情). This is also known as pronouncing a verdict (宣判), arbitrating (仲裁) or giving a judgement (判定). Of course, this judgement will also be made in consideration with common law, also known as case law (普通法), as well as previous cases known as precedents (先例). Laws created by governments – that is, legislation (立法) – can also influence a judge’s decision-making process, typically the different criminal codes (刑事法典) of the given country or jurisdiction (管辖).

The judge or jury will then find the accused guilty (判定有罪) or not guilty (判定无罪). Criminal cases can be complicated, but the basic principle to all of them is that the person on trial can only be found guilty beyond reasonable doubt (无可置疑证明有罪). In other words, if there is any doubt whatsoever that the person did not commit the crime they must not be punished (惩罚). Essentially, if the judge or jury is 100% sure that the accused did the crime, they must convict ([kənˈvikt] 定罪;论罪) them, or otherwise acquit (无罪释放) them. If the accused is found guilty, then the judge will sentence them by imposing a particular penalty (刑罚;量刑;判刑). For example, the accused could be put in jail (imprisoned: 监禁;坐牢) for three years; this would also be known as serving a three year sentence (服三年的刑).

Criminals serving their sentences in jail are called convicts [ˈkänˌvikts], prisoners or inmates (囚犯). Convicts who are released from prison (who get out of jail: 出狱) are known as ex-convicts (ex-cons: 前科犯). People under 18 – in legal language, minors (未成年人) or juvenile delinquents (少年犯) – usually do not serve their sentence in an adult prison but in a youth detention centre (少年管教所;少年感化院) instead. The aim of these types of correctional facilities (管教所;教养院) is rehabilitation (改造) – that is, to assist prisoners to become law-abiding citizens (守法公民) before they are released back into society (re-enter society: 出狱后重新踏入社会).

Of course there are many other sentencing options (判刑选择) apart from imprisonment. If the judge wishes to give the person a second chance and avoid giving them a criminal record, a dismissal of charge (驳回判决) may be granted. Or the convicted person may be issued a fine (罚款;罚金) or ordered to complete community service (社区服务). In some cases the judge may grant parole (假释) so the prisoner can be released on the promise of good behaviour. Usually they are given a suspended sentence (缓刑) and a good behaviour bond (行为检点契约) is drawn up. Another option the judge can consider is allowing the convicted person to serve part or all of their sentence at home (known as home detention: 在家监禁).

Lastly, court orders (法庭命令) are another option the judge can consider. For example, in a domestic violence (家庭暴力) or stalking (跟踪) case, the accused may be given a restraining order (限制令) to stop them from approaching the victim. The victim may then need to find a shelter or refuge (避难所), or attend counselling (心理咨询). In some cases the person who is convicted may wish to appeal (上诉), or ask the judge to review or reconsider their decision (复议). If there has been a miscarriage of justice (冤狱) or mistrial (误判), the conviction may be quashed (撤销).

150 Criminal Law Terms in English and Chinese

  1. criminal law: 刑法
  2. prosecute (indict): 起诉
  3. public prosecution: 公诉
  4. private prosecution: 自诉
  5. criminal offence: 罪行
  6. press/file/lay charges: 指控
  7. charge (offence): 罪名
  8. count(s): 项
  9. two counts of murder: 两项谋杀罪
  10. indictable offence: 可检控罪;可诉讼罪
  11. judge: 法官
  12. Your Honour: 阁下
  13. jury: 陪审团
  14. juror: 陪审员
  15. summary offence: 简易罪;简易程序罪;即决罪
  16. drink driving: 酒醉驾驶
  17. infringement notice: 罚单
  18. felony (serious offence): 重罪
  19. misdemeanour (minor offence): 轻罪
  20. Magistrate’s Court: 地方法庭
  21. District Court (County Court in Victoria): 中级法庭
  22. Supreme Court: 最高法庭
  23. High Court of Australia: 联邦最高法庭
  24. Family Court: 家事法庭
  25. Drug Court: 毒品法庭
  26. Children’s Court: 儿童法庭
  27. tribunal: 仲裁庭
  28. commission: 委员会
  29. open court: 公开法庭
  30. closed court: 非公开法庭
  31. a person commits a crime: 犯罪
  32. a crime is committed: 案发
  33. break the law: 违法
  34. report to the police: 报警
  35. investigate a crime: 侦查;调查犯罪
  36. police officer: 警员
  37. constable: 警官
  38. sergeant: 沙展
  39. detective: 侦探
  40. homicide squad 凶杀案组
  41. identify the offender: 识别罪犯
  42. catch sb red-handed: 当场捕获
  43. preserve the crime scene: 保护案发现场
  44. contaminate the crime scene: 破坏案发现场
  45. criminal: 罪犯;犯人
  46. perpetrator: 罪犯;犯人
  47. victim: 受害者
  48. culprit: 主犯
  49. accomplice (accessory): 同犯;从犯
  50. interview: 询问;盘问;质询
  51. interrogate: 讯问;审讯
  52. suspect [ˈsəsˌpekt]: 嫌疑犯
  53. alibi: 不在场证明
  54. criminal record: 犯罪记录;案底
  55. priors: 前科
  56. confess to a crime: 供认有罪
  57. come clean: 坦白交代
  58. statement: 声明;陈述
  59. oral statement: 口供
  60. written statement: 笔供
  61. testimony: 证词
  62. affidavit: 宣誓书;担保书
  63. gather evidence: 收集证据
  64. homicide: 杀人(案);他杀(案)
  65. murder weapon: 凶器
  66. eye-witness: 目击者
  67. witness: 证人
  68. forensics: 法医
  69. exhibit: 物证
  70. coroner: 验尸官
  71. cause of death: 死因
  72. death by natural causes: 自然死亡
  73. unnatural death: 非自然死亡
  74. caution: 警告
  75. arrest (apprehend): 逮捕
  76. issue an arrest warrant against sb: 对某人发出拘捕令
  77. detain (put in custody): 拘留
  78. release on bail: 保释
  79. be released on bail for medical treatment: 保外就医
  80. solve a case: 侦破
  81. court: 法庭
  82. appear in court (attend court): 出庭
  83. summon to court (subpoena): 传唤
  84. mention date: 过堂日期
  85. hear/try a case: 审理
  86. hearing (trial): 庭审;审判;审讯
  87. stand trial: 受审
  88. prosecutor: 检控官
  89. defense: 辩护人
  90. plaintiff (the accuser): 原告
  91. defendant (the accused): 被告
  92. plead guilty/not guilty: 认罪/不认罪
  93. legal representation: 法律代表
  94. lawyer: 律师
  95. barrister: 高级律师
  96. legal aid: 法律援助
  97. represent oneself (self-representation): 自己代表
  98. take an oath/affirmation: 宣誓
  99. witness box: 证人席
  100. testify: 作证
  101. interpret the law: 诠释法律
  102. give a ruling (adjudicate): 裁决
  103. facts of the case: 案情
  104. pronounce a verdict: 宣判
  105. arbitration: 仲裁
  106. judgement: 判决
  107. common law (case law): 普通法
  108. precedent: 先例
  109. legislation: 立法
  110. criminal code: 刑事法典
  111. jurisdiction: 管辖
  112. be found guilty: 判定有罪
  113. be found not guilty: 判定无罪
  114. be found guilty beyond reasonable doubt: 无可置疑证明有罪
  115. punish: 惩罚
  116. convict [kənˈvikt]: 定罪;论罪
  117. acquit: 无罪释放
  118. sentence (impose a penalty): 刑罚;量刑;判刑
  119. be put in jail (be imprisoned): 监禁;坐牢
  120. prison; jail: 监狱
  121. serve a three year sentence: 服三年的刑
  122. convict [ˈkänˌvikt] (prisoner; inmate): 囚犯
  123. release from prison (get out of jail): 出狱
  124. ex-convict (ex-con): 前科犯
  125. minor: 未成年人
  126. juvenile delinquent: 少年犯
  127. youth detention centre: 少年管教所;少年感化院
  128. correctional facilities: 管教所;教养院
  129. rehabilitation: 改造
  130. law-abiding citizen: 守法公民
  131. be released back into society (re-enter society): 出狱后重新踏入社会
  132. sentencing options: 判刑选择
  133. dismissal of charge: 驳回判决
  134. fine: 罚款;罚金
  135. community service: 社区服务
  136. parole: 假释
  137. suspended sentence: 缓刑
  138. good behaviour bond: 行为检点契约
  139. home detention: 在家监禁
  140. court order: 法庭命令
  141. domestic violence: 家庭暴力
  142. stalking: 跟踪
  143. restraining order: 限制令
  144. shelter (refuge): 庇护所
  145. counselling: 心理咨询
  146. appeal: 上诉
  147. review (reconsider a decision): 复议
  148. miscarriage of justice: 冤狱
  149. mistrial: 误判
  150. quash: 撤销

11 Comments to "An Introduction to Criminal Law Terms in English and Chinese (+ Glossary)"

  1. Judith Gibson's Gravatar Judith Gibson
    15/12/2013 - 6:56 am | Permalink

    So useful I tweeted it! Thanks, like many others I have my own list, and will now sit down to update and enlarge my own. I hope you can find the time to do a similar list of civil terms.

  2. Zhun Liu's Gravatar Zhun Liu
    17/12/2013 - 12:29 pm | Permalink

    What can I say, Carl? Your works are always so awesome! I am a reporter and editor working for the English edition of Beijing-based Global Times, and always have a problem about translating something with Chinese characteristic to English. You are helping me a lot. Thanks!

  3. David Gale's Gravatar David Gale
    10/02/2014 - 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I will be admitted as a lawyer in Tasmania, Australia in 6 months and found this article very useful.

    Another great resource I have found recently is the English-Chinese legal glossary on the webpage of the Hong Kong Department of Justice. Because Hong Kong is a common law jurisdiction, this glossary includes a lot of common-law specific vocabulary that might otherwise be very hard to track down. Here is the link:

  4. Rie's Gravatar Rie
    25/08/2014 - 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Hi Carl,
    Thanks very much for your resources, I find them so useful and helpful. I am a translation and interpreting student, and I am taking Naati exam in Nov, but I think I really have trouble in consecutive interpreting, do you have any tricks for that, besides keep practising, what should I do to pass my exam, could you please give me some suggestions?
    Looking forward to hear from you~:)

  5. Rocky's Gravatar Rocky
    14/08/2015 - 10:48 am | Permalink

    Really good work, Carl! I studied for the Chinese bar before coming to Australia. The Criminal Law is a particularly interesting subject. A great number of Chinese bar resources can be found on, with tons of lectures and notes available for download.

  6. Winnie's Gravatar Winnie
    30/12/2015 - 10:20 am | Permalink

    Hi Carl,

    Thank you for your efforts to put together all those information, they are really really useful. I would like to comment on no. 38 and no. 74 I trust that you don’t mind.

    In my opinion no. 38 Sergeant is better translated as 警长 (书面语) because 沙展 is 口语 .

    As for no. 74 Caution, your translation is 警告, however in the situation of arresting a person
    I will use 警诫. Because 警告 in Chinese means ‘warning’.

    I hope it helps.


  7. Anne's Gravatar Anne
    04/05/2016 - 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I find your website really inspiring and informative!
    However, the definition of mistrial in Cambridge Dictionary appears to be ‘a ​trial that cannot be ​completed or whose ​result has no ​legal ​value, usually because a ​legal ​mistake has been made’. Thus, from my point of view, it should be translated as “无效审判” instead of “误判”. As the latter is the reason while the former is the result.
    Thanks again for all the information!

  8. Sanna Wong's Gravatar Sanna Wong
    20/02/2017 - 8:03 am | Permalink

    Thank you Carl. This is very informative. I am trying to study the Court Interpreter exam in the US. I do not have any knowledge on the legal system, and the information available in the internet is very handful.

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