It used to be that before you considered a career in law, you needed to take a year of Latin to understand and appreciate different terms and expressions like “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”). There are many phrases commonly used in the practice of law that many of us have heard, especially if we have ever watched a crime drama featuring the court room on television. Some of the more common phrases are provided below with a short definition and a discussion of how each is used.
“De facto” is Latin for “from the fact.” This legal term is a reference to what is believed to be true, through practice, as opposed to what is written in the law. For example, de facto segregation in public schools existed in the southern United States well after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that banned such practices.
Et Alia or Et Al.
The Latin phrase “et alia,” often seen abbreviated as et al., is a reference to a group of individuals (“and others”). A lawsuit brought against several individuals together may reference the group as John Doe, et al. versus…
Habeas corpus means, literally, “have the body present.” This term is used in connection with what is known as a writ of habeas corpus, requiring a person’s presence, typically as it relates to a legal proceeding or court of law. The concept evolved from English Parliamentary law with origins in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679.
“Mea culpa” is a Latin phrase for “my fault.” A mea culpa is an admission of guilt or fault made by an individual.
The Latin term “mens rea” is the difference between an intentional act and an unintentional act of murder. First-degree murder carries with it the element of mens rea, or the intent to commit murder through planning and forethought. A lesser crime such as manslaughter, however, is absent mens rea, or a premeditated state of mind to commit the act of murder, although the resulting act is similar to first-degree murder.
“By itself” or “on its own” is the meaning associated with the Latin term “per se.” In reviewing evidence associated with a trial, a particular piece of evidence, per se, may not be an indication of guilt or innocence. However, in connection with other pieces of evidence introduced in a legal proceeding, it may provide an important evidentiary link.
The legal term “pro bono” is commonly used when legal services are rendered for free, usually to an indigent person. The Latin term pro bono means “for the good.”
“Pro se” is Latin for a person who chooses to represent themselves in a legal proceeding (“for oneself; on behalf of oneself”). The right to counsel is provided for in the U.S. Constitution by the Sixth Amendment. The court clarified this right in Faretta v. California to permit individuals to represent themselves.
Quid Pro Quo
This Latin phrase refers to an exchange of value between parties to enter into a contract. It is taken to mean, literally, “this for that.”
“Under penalty” is the meaning associated with the Latin term “subpoena.” A subpoena is typically a written summons or order to appear that has attached with it penalties for failure to appear or respond.
Aaron Wilmington writes on a variety of legal issues such as Casino Slip and Fall accidents, Legal Terminology, Contract Law, Commercial Law and other areas as well.