10 Latin Words and What they Mean in the Legal System

Latin legal words and what they mean

What Do These Latin Words Mean in Legalese? And Why do Attorneys Use Latin Terms?

Latin is the ancient ancestor of all modern romance languages. The language dates back to as early as 7th century BCE. Nowadays, Latin is regarded as a ‘dead language’ spoken by no one. So why do attorneys and judges use Latin words in the legal profession? And what do these Latin words mean in legalese?

Ad Litem

Ad litem means “for the suit.”  You will commonly see this used when describing a guardian ad litem, which is a court appointed person (usually an attorney) that advocates for a party that is incapable of advocating for themselves. We usually see guardian ad litem appointments in cases involving children, the elderly, or cognitive impaired parties.

Amicus Curiae

Amicus curiae means “a friend of the court.”

Amicus Curiae briefs are filed by organizations that have an interest in a legal case, but are not parties. For example, if a case has major tort reform implications, the American Association for Justice may file an Amicus Curiae brief, even if the case involves allegations of medical malpractice between a doctor and patient. The AAJ would file its Amicus brief, not because it has a financial interest in the plaintiff prevailing, but because it hopes to sway the judge’s ruling in order to contain the potential tort reform threat that a bad ruling may cause.

Cert., which is shorthand for Certiorari

Certiorari, or Cert. for short, means a writ or order by which a higher court reviews a decision of a lower court. Usually, a writ of certiorari is an appeal to a higher court, like the Supreme Court, after a lower court has potentially made an erroneous ruling.

Ex Parte

Ex parte means “from the part.”

In law, ex parte usually means a party is doing something without the other party’s permission or participation. For example, if a plaintiff attorney has ex parte conversations with a treating doctor, that means the attorney spoke with the treating doctor without telling or involving the defendant attorney.

In Camera

In camera means “in the [judge’s] chamber.” Lawsuits oftentimes deal with sensitive, confidential, or potentially prejudicial documents and evidence. For this reason, before allowing a piece of evidence to be publicly discussed in a court of law, a judge may order an ‘In Camera Review’ of the evidence. This means the judge will review the evidence in his or her private chamber, and then decide if it should be publicized in the case.

Lis Pendens

Lis pendens means “lawsuit pending.”

Lis pendens is a Latin term that is used in the American legal system to warn the public that a lawsuit has been filed against a person or property. Lis pendens is most commonly encountered in real estate law. Since buyers of property may not be able to check a case docket, a lis pendens serves as an additional notice to the buyer that the subject property may have liens or a lawsuit attached to it.

Per Curiam

Per curiam means “by the court, as a whole.” Most commonly used in appellate courts and the Supreme Court, where more than one judge rules on a case.

A per curiam decision is a unanimous decision by all judges that heard the case. This means there is no dissenting opinion.

Pro Bono

Pro bono means, “for the public good.”

In the legal field, pro bono means a lawyer who is “doing the public good” most commonly by volunteering to represent a party for free. We commonly see pro bono legal services offered with cases involving the indigent or underrepresented.

Pro Hac Vice

Pro hac vice means “for this turn.” This is used by lawyers that are not admitted in a specific state to appear as an attorney “this is turn”; i.e. only on this case. For example, a Florida nursing home abuse attorney can appear Pro Hac Vice on an Illinois bed sore case so long as the court approves.

Res Ipsa Loquitor

Res ipsa loquitor means “the thing or object speaks for itself.” In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof. This means a plaintiff has to prove its case in order to prevail. Res ipsa loquitor almost shifts that burden, essentially by holding that since the event occurred, the defendant must be negligent.

An example is a retained surgical instrument, or a large bed sore in a bedbound patient. These things simply should not happen. Therefore, the fact they did happen means the defendant was negligent.

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