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Latin Legal Terms. Legalese and Plain English

Old Latin legal terms
Latin legal terms still exist

Law schools teach the new generation of lawyers to write clearly in contrast to old muddled legalese, but even now, Latin legal terms persist.

Despite attempts to use plain English some older Latin words and phrases simply won’t go away.

Certain Latin terminology finds itself deeply embedded in legal culture.

It shows no signs of going away.

Here are some of the top Latin based words an phrases terms persisting in the language, in alphabetical order:

Ab Initio

This means “from the beginning”.  So if a court says a contract is void “ab initio” they reject the entire agreement.  Don’t even argue about certain provisions or the way the parties acted as if they had an agreement.  Rewind the legal history and start entirely over.


This word indicates that a higher court will review what a lower court has done.  The most common use comes in the term ‘Writ of Certiorari’.  This is a request filed with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the highest court in the U.S. to overturn an arguably wrong lower court ruling.  Of course the U.S. Supreme Court can accept the appeal or say no, we’re not reviewing this.


A codicil to a will is simply an amendment to the original will.  Be careful, you can’t just write notes on the will or on a separate piece of paper.  To effectively change anything in a will, the amendment must comply with the same formalities as the original will.  That means witnesses and a notary.  The document amending the will is called a codicil.

Ex Parte

When attorneys or others attempt any court process without giving notice to the other side, they ask for Ex Parte Relief.  The Latin roughly translates to without the other party.  Often used, but not exclusively, in divorce cases. People sometimes seek injunctions or other court help without having to tell the other party.

Ex Post Facto

Drafters of the U.S. Constitution wanted to make sure lawmakers wouldn’t pass laws dealing with a situation that has already happened.  An Ex Post Facto law would potentially convict someone with a new law after the offense has taken place.  The Constitution prohibits Ex Post Facto laws.  This means that once the legislature passes a law and the President, or Governor if we’re talking about state law, signs it, that law only comes into effect going forward and does not apply to past situations.

Habeus Corpus

A request for Habeus Corpus asks the court to release detainees or inmates either for total freedom or for some specific purpose like a family funeral, a civil deposition or some other one-time event.  Habeus Corpus means that the authorities literally have the body and it should be freed either temporarily or permanently based on the facts claimed in the Petition for Habeus Corpus.

Nunc Pro Tunc

‘From the Beginning’ or ‘Now for then’ are the best English translations for this Latin phrase.  If a court acknowledges that a previous action was incorrect a new order replaces it as though the original had not existed.  Sometimes, people file a petition or other court document and realize that it was a mistake.  A new document is allowed ‘nunc pro tunc’, meaning that the old one essentially never even existed.

Prima Facie

Literally translated this means ‘at first face’.  In the law the prosecutor or the plaintiff attorney in a civil case must prove a prima facie case or it can be dismissed by the court.  For example a prima facie first degree murder case requires evidence that there was a premeditated killing with malice aforethought.  Any negligence case from medical malpractice to a car accident requires a prima facie case with proof of four elements.  The elements in a prima facie negligence case are duty, breach of duty, causation and harm.

Quid pro quo

One thing for another is the basic translation.  In other words if you agree to provide a certain good, service or money, then I will directly give you something that you want.  This is one of the Latin legal terms used commonly even outside of the law.

Res Ipsa Loquiter

The direct translation means that which speaks for itself.  In other words if you walk down the street and  an awning falls on your head, whoever owns the building or the business faces responsibility for your injuries.  Cases actually often come from things that fall.  In practice, if your attorney proves that the owner or operator of the ‘instrumentality’ maintained exclusive control of the thing, and no one else including you, had any control over it, only then the burden of proof shifts over to them.  Click here for more on Res Ipsa Loquiter.

Stare Decisis

Direct translation as close as it gets this means to stand by that which is already decided.  In other words, look back to other previous similar cases and cite precedent. Courts often avoid making new law and instead compare the facts of any new case to previous rulings.

Vicarious Liability

Under this legal theory a company can be held responsible for the wrongdoing of its employees.  For example if a truck driver hits your car causing an injury, you have a valid claim against not only the truck driver but also the company that employs the driver.  Vicarious, the English word, finds its root in the Latin vicis, which loosely means alternate or stead.

Voir Dire

Before being seated as jurors in a court case, people called for jury duty must undergo a process showing the court they can be impartial and fair.  The Latin verum dicere translates roughly into saying that which is true.


Actually this one traces more back to the Anglo-Saxon “gewrit” and Proto-Germanic “writa”.  The term refers to a formal written order from a court or to a document filed in court seeking a specific order.  For example a Writ of Habeus Corpus asks the court to release the body of a person being confined.  In New Hampshire even into the 21st Century attorneys filed Writs in court asking for relief.  The court Writ form, embossed with the court’s actual raised seal, could only be obtained by attorneys from the clerk’s office.  New rules got rid of the old form.  Like everyone else, we write up legal papers on a computer and print them out on normal paper.  Most of the time what we file is called either a complaint or a petition.

Latin Legal Terms Still Around

Those terms represent some of the top Latin terms still used every day by those in the legal world.  There are many more.  If you come across a Latin term and want us to add it to the list, please click on the response form below.


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Attorney Myers is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, and New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a broad range of legal services in personal injury cases in Massachusetts (MA) and New Hampshire (NH) areas.

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