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The Lexicon of Common Legal Terms

Legal jargon can sometimes be confusing to understand. After all, lawyers and judges often toss around Latin terms like ipso facto and prima facie, that those of us not in the legal profession have a hard time deciphering.

In this article, we have listed some of the most common Latin phrases used by lawyers, attorneys, judges and other legal professionals, with a brief explanation that will hopefully shed light on what they actually mean. Let’s get started with:

Ab initio (From the beginning)

This term is usually used when deliberating on contract disputes and means that the decision will apply at the start of the issue rather than when problems started. For instance, if a contract is established under false pretenses, a judge can decide that the contract never existed and is nonbinding ab initio.

Ad hoc (To this)

The term is used when a problem arises that existing groups cannot handle, and therefore a new group needs to be created to handle the specific problem. You’ll mostly hear it when ad hoc committees are formed to handle matters of high-profile or national importance. A recent example would be the government task force that was formed to handle videogame loot boxes and gambling regulations.

Amicus curiae (Friend of the Court)

If you call in an expert that is not directly involved in a particular case to advise the courts on a specific point of law or fact concerning the lawsuit, you are calling upon an Amicus curia. You’ll mostly see these experts in criminal cases.

Actus reus (A guilty act)

This term refers to the actual deliberate act of committing a crime. Criminal negligence and failing to report a crime will also come under this term, but an act of self-defence that might result in injury or death to the other person is not considered actus reus. An associated term that you might also hear is Mens rea, which is when there is criminal intent that has not yet been acted upon. Mens rea also encompasses crimes that are committed purposely, knowingly, recklessly and negligently.

Corpus delicti (Body of the crime)

In essence, this term is used to describe the main facts surrounding a case that proves to a judge or jury that a crime did in fact happen, such as signs of forced entry in a robbery case, or signs of a struggle in kidnapping or murder cases. In modern times, this definition has extended to include references to physical evidence in a crime, such as a victim’s body and autopsy report in a murder.

De jure (By right)

If you say something is de jure, you are stating that that thing exists with authority from the law, or in other words, that the thing is legal and legitimate. The term can be used to quantify anything from a contract to a governmental body and even the Government itself.

Ex parte (On behalf of)

There are instances where only one party is involved in a court case. In such instances, any ruling made is said to be ex parte. It can also be used to refer to rulings made in legal matters where the other party is not present and will not be notified of the decision.

Ex post facto (After the fact)

This applies to recent rulings that will be applied retroactively. An interesting point to consider is that the U.S. Constitution forbids the use of ex post facto laws made by the U.S. Congress and individual states.

Inter alia (Among other)

This term seems quite simple, and it is used mostly when a suspect is accused of multiple crimes. The prosecutor will then refer to one crime, inter alia in all legal documents to save space and time. Most of the time, the crime mentioned is the one that carries the heaviest sentence, and the other crimes will either be disregarded as minor or can be considered during final deliberations to deliver an even heavier sentence.

Ipso facto (By the very fact)

This is used to describe an obvious result, much like the English word ‘therefore’. For instance, someone born in the U.S. will ipso facto have a U.S. Social Security number.

Prima facie (After first view)

Prosecutors say they have a prima facia case when they have enough evidence for a case to go to trial and reasonably expect a favorable result

 Pro hac vice (For this occasion)

Pro hac vice refers to when lawyers take part in a trial in a state where they don’t hold a license.

That’s all for this post. If you liked it and would like us to cover even more legal terms in another article, please leave a comment below!

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