A Guide to Legal Latin

Every profession has its own jargon. A doctor may need something “stat,” a boxer may be “on the ropes” and a computer scientist may espouse that “A.I.” will take over the world!

In a court of law, you may even hear a lawyer say “ignorantia juris non excusat.”

… Come again?

Believe it or not, you probably know this convoluted-sounding rule in English. It means that ignorance (ignorantia) of the law (juris) does not excuse (non excusat) the defendant. In other words, you can’t feign ignorance of the law to get off scot-free.

Latin usage is a common practice in the legal profession. Unfortunately, this language barrier leaves many clients confused about their own case.

Why Do Lawyers Use Latin?

Because Latin is a so-called “dead language” that is lengthy, grammatically complex, and understood by few people, you may wonder why our modern justice system is still steeped in Latin words and phrases. Many, including some lawyers, would prefer that the courts do away with Latin altogether.

The use of Latin legal terms is a tradition passed on throughout history and is, therefore, difficult to remove entirely. Our modern legal system is a direct descendant of Europe’s, which was influenced by the courts of ancient Rome, where Latin was the predominant language. Most Latin terms still used in law have been passed down from ancient times. These terms are especially preferred when the English term or phrase is overly complex or simply doesn’t exist.

What are Some Common Latin Legal Phrases?

Some Latin legal terms are so prevalent that they have already seeped into everyday English language usage. You may not even realize that some of the words and phrases you use somewhat frequently were originally Latin:

  • Ad hoc – created for a specific reason. An ad hoc lawyer may specialize in a specific area of law.
  • Alibi – a defendant’s claim or evidence that they were elsewhere when a crime was committed.
  • Bona fide – done with good or just intent, not malicious or criminal intent. For example, an unsuspecting shopper may purchase stolen goods or property bona fide.
  • Caveat – a warning that notice must be provided prior to a given action being taken.
  • Status quo – a judgment or sentence that keeps things as they are right now. For example, in child custody cases, the child would continue their current living arrangement, and in labor cases, the employee would continue their job with their usual pay.
  • Quid pro quo – the exchange of one thing for something else. This is a broad term that could mean a contract, a politician taking a bribe or a supervisor sexually harassing an employee by threatening them with unemployment or other negative consequences if they don’t acquiesce.
  • Versus – against. An abbreviation of this word, v., is frequently used in the titles of court cases to indicate that the plaintiff is taking a stance against the defendant.

Latin Used in Injury Law

As you prepare for an injury case, it may help you to brush up on some of the more complicated terms so you can follow the court proceedings more closely. Here is a small sample of the terms you may hear:

  • Ad litem – a person appointed to speak on behalf of another person. In lawsuit cases, a “guardian ad litem” is an adult who may speak on behalf of their child or a person who is incapacitated.
  • Affidavit – a factual written statement signed by an affiant – typically a witness – before a court case begins. Because this is an oath, an affiant can be found guilty of perjury if they were to lie in their affidavit.
  • Res ipsa loquitur – a charge that the plaintiff was negligent because there is no other reasonable explanation for a defendant’s injury. For res ipsa loquitur to stand, three things must be true: 1) the injury is usually caused by negligence, 2) the defendant had sole control of the situation or circumstances of the injury, and 3) the plaintiff didn’t do anything to bring the injury upon themselves.
  • Respondeat superior – when an employer is held liable for the actions of their employee. In tort cases, an employer can be held liable for the criminal or civil offense of their employee, although not that of an independent contractor. In many cases, both the employer and the employee are deemed responsible. 
  • Subpoena – a summons to the court. You may be subpoenaed for testimony or evidence, and you must do what is requested at the risk of incurring legal penalties.

Of course, there are far more legal terms you may come across. If you hear a term and are unsure of its definition, you can look it up using Merriam-Webster’s free online law dictionary.

Receive Easy-to-Understand Legal Counsel with Hardy, Wolf & Downing Injury Lawyers

No person should feel forced to drop their case for fear of misunderstanding Latin legalese. At Hardy, Wolf & Downing Injury Lawyers, we make sure you understand the legal process every step of the way. Our firm has been helping the residents of Maine since 1976 and strives to get the best results for every one of our clients.

Our injury lawyers have experience in multiple areas of injury law, including:

  • Personal injury
  • Car, motorcycle and truck accidents
  • Boating accidents
  • Construction accidents
  • Dog bites
  • Elder and nursing home abuse
  • Birth injury
  • Premises liability
  • Product liability
  • Slip and fall
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Wrongful death

Call Hardy, Wolf & Downing Injury Lawyers at 1-800-INJURED today for your free legal consultation.

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