Legal Latin

How many words or phrases do you know?

From the Guardian February 1999 (with my corrections!)

Latin judgments
A writ by any other name...

AB INITIO it should be said that there is a good prima facie case for the decision of Lord Irvine, the Lord High Chancellor, to simplify the language used in court as part of the civil law reforms which bear the imprimatur of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf. From April 26 [1999] Lord Irvine wants lawyers, pro bono publico, to be much more straightforward in the way they speak pendente lite. Out will go, inter alia, hearings in camera or ex parte. In will come hearings in private or without notice. Plaintiffs will be replaced by claimants. Newspaper editors will no longer live in terror of writs. Instead they will tremble at claim forms. Mr Anton Piller will soon be forgotten except in cobwebbed old tomes. The eponymous legal term will be succeeded, ad infinitum and sine die, by a plain old search order.

News of the proposed changes was announced by electronic fiat on Lord Irvine's website and it is as yet unclear whether more traditional lawyers will view them as a casus belli or as an act of force majeure which defy restitutio in integrum. The lingua franca of the law may be baffling to the lay person but that, surely, was part of its charm and all of its function. Lord Hoffmann's judicial colleagues recently found that he was "a judge in his own cause," a phrase which lacks any undertones of majesty or even mystery. How much more satisfying if they had pronounced that he had offended the basic principle of nemo debet esse judex in propria? Would his noble lordship then have shrugged the matter aside so lightly? Per contra, we think. Matters that are sub judice or lis pendens have a forbidding ring to them which is sadly lacking in "pending litigation". Ultra vires is not without authority as a piece of legalistic verbiage: habeas corpus, translated into English, lacks a certain body.

All this could, in time, have a serious impact on another old legal concept, derived either from the Latin feudum, the Old English feoh, or some say, the Frankish fehu-od. Nowadays most lawyers tend to refer to them simply as "fees". They customarily arrive in the form of a "bill" (from med. Lat, bulla) and elaborately set out the price of, exempli gratia, interlocutory this, mandamus that, half a dozen subpoenas, two dozen affidavits and a fair old quantum of res ipsa loquiturs. The distilled wisdom of centuries goes into the construction of these magnificent documents. Is Lord Irvine really saying that under New Labour lawyers will be required to abandon this age old modus operandi and tell their clients what they've been up to in plain English? It is difficult to imagine a, greater scandalum magnum for rotund felines fom Gray's Inn to the Middle Temple As the traditional Latin saying goes: Caveat feles obesus!

ab initio    from the beginning
prima facie    at first appearance
imprimatur    imprint; lit "let it be printed"
pro bono publico    for the public good
pendente lite; lis pendenswhile judgment is pending; a case in progress
inter alia    among other things
in camera    in private; lit."in a room"
ex parte    prejudiced; lit: from a part/party
ad infinitum     for ever
sine die    for ever; lit "without day/date"
fiat    command; lit "let it be done"
casus belli    a ground for war
restitutio in integrum    complete restoration, putting back as new
lingua franca    international language (lit "Frank tongue" - the Arabs in the middle ages called all Europeans "Franks" - though strictly applying only to the Teutonic tribes who conquered Gaul in 6th century AD. It was a mediterranean mixture of Italian, French, Greek, Arabic mutually understood)
nemo debet esse iudex in propria    nobody must be a judge in his own [case]
per contra    the opposite sub judice    pending; lit "under the judge"
ultra vires    in excess of the power possessed; lit "beyond strength"
habeas corpus    "you are to produce the body"
exempli gratia    for sake of example [e.g.]
mandamus    a writ [so called from the first "We command..."]
subpoena     a writ commanding a person to appear in court to give evidence; lit. "under penalty" because the person was bound to appear sub poena centum librorum [£100]
affidavit    a sworn deposition
quantum    amount; lit "how much"
res ipsa loquitur    open and shut case; lit "the thing itself speaks"
modus operandi    method of working
scandalum magnum    a great stumbling-block (original meaning of "scandal")
caveat feles obesus    let the fat cat watch out!