Along with mastering complicated legal concepts, enduring the Socratic Method, learning to outline, and tackling legal writing, law school forces you to learn an entirely new vocabulary. Learning the language of the law is a real hurdle that cannot be overlooked just because it is not covered on the syllabus. To add a degree of difficulty, some of the terms you come across while reading your cases are not even in English. Smart law students are generally experts at context clues, so the usage of many of these terms may already be familiar to you even if you have never looked up the translation. But there is plenty in law school to learn by osmosis – don’t struggle with these Latin terms if a simple translation could remove a stumbling block! This post will give you 15 Latin legal terms frequently encountered, but rarely translated or discussed. Without further ado –
1. Ad litem – for the suit
Courts appoint attorneys ad litem, generally as a matter of law, for parties that have a legal interest in a case but that cannot represent themselves like children or incapacitated adults.
2. Amicus curiae – friend of the court
If a non-party to a proceeding has an interest in the case (or the law) before the court, the non-party can ask the court for permission to file a friend of the court brief. An amicus brief, carries no formal legal weight, but the hope of the non-party is that the brief will help the court to resolve the issue based on their legal argument or perspective.
3. Certiorari – to be more fully informed
A Writ of Certiorari, sometimes shortened to just“cert.”, is most commonly known as a means to seek review of a case by the U.S. Supreme Court.
4. De novo – a new
This term is usually associated with the standard of judicial review. When an appellate court reviews a case de novo, the court gives no deference to the findings of the lower court.
5. Ex parte – from the part
This term generally describes hearings held or orders made by the court at the request of one party without providing notice to or permitting argument from the opposing party – not a common procedural practice.
6. Habeas corpus – that you have the body
A writ of habeas corpus seeks a ruling on a matter when someone has been imprisoned or otherwise detained by the government. The writ of habeas corpus is directed at the public official that is holding the person, so if a case name includes the name of a warden or an attorney general, it is likely a habeas proceeding.
7. In camera – in a chamber
If something is to be reviewed in camera, it will be reviewed in the judge’s chamber – away from the other parties and jury.
8. In forma pauperis – in the manner of a pauper
Often, if an indigent party pleads in forma pauperis, court costs will be waived.
9. In re – in the matter of
This term is often used in case names, e.g., In re Estate of Jones.
10. Mandamus – we command
A writ of mandamus seeks to command a public official, including a lower court judge, to take a particular action. This can be used in limited circumstances as an alternative to a direct appeal of a case.
11. Per curiam – by the court as a whole
A per curiam decision is a unanimous decision of a court that is authored by the court as a whole rather than by a particular judge.
12. Pro bono (publico) – for the public good
Attorneys that do pro bono work are volunteering their services for free for the public good.
13. Pro se – for oneself; on one’s own behalf; without a lawyer
Pro se litigants are those that are representing themselves in court without an attorney.
14. Sua sponte – of one’s own accord; voluntarily
If a court is permitted to act sua sponte, a court can take an action in a case without a request from either party.
15. Quasi – as if
This term is a favorite prefix of lawyers and courts everywhere. It can be added to any term to make an argument that one thing is like another, e.g., “even if it was not technically a judicial action, it was a quasi-judicial action.”
And while I could not justify placing the following term on the list of commonly used Latin terms, I had to include my favorite –
Qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur – who as well for the king as for himself sues in this matter
While it is usually referred to as a “qui tam action,” that is a shame because the full version is far more fun. These cases are rare, but who can’t enjoy a 13-word Latin term of art? By definition, a qui tam action is “an action brought under a statute that allows a private person to sue for a penalty, part of which the government or some specified public institution will receive.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1368 (9th ed. 2009).
*All translations are from Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009).
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