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15 Legal Terms Everyone Should Know

Lawyers, judges, and even police officers love to throw around legal terms. This can be quite confusing, as many of these words and phrases aren’t even in English but in Latin. The reason why American law has plenty of Latin is pretty intuitive. Ancient Roman democracy and the legal system are the basis of the law in many western countries, including the United States.
Hence, the borrowed Latin vocabulary. Unfortunately, knowing this fact doesn’t make it any easier to understand legalese. So, if you want to understand legal representatives better and simply enjoy your favorite legal TV show to the fullest, learn these 15 legal words and phrases.

1. Persona non grata

Legal Terms court

You’ve likely heard of this phrase. It is literally translated as "person not welcome" from Latin. It is used in diplomatic and legal situations where a person is prohibited from entering or remaining in a country or specific place. Here’s an example sentence: “He was declared persona non grata and forced to leave the country immediately.”

2. Ex officio

Another Latin phrase, ex officio comes from the Latin words ex ‘out of’ and officium ‘duty’. In law, this term denotes a member who serves a specific role because of their status or position. For example, “All teachers are ex officio members of the school board.”

3. Alibi

We’re all familiar with this term, but few of us realize that it’s of Ancient Roman origin. It means “elsewhere, at another place” in Latin. When a person is asked to provide an alibi, they need to state their whereabouts at a time when a crime occurred. This information is then used to protect that person from becoming a crime suspect.

4. De facto/ de jure

Legal Terms lawyer signing papers

Some believe that these two terms can be used interchangeably, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. De facto means “in reality” and refers to the real-world definition of a specific subject. De jure can be translated as “by law” and refers to the legal definition of something. Often, these two definitions differ.

In fact, in many cases, de facto and de jure are appear as opposites in a sentence. Take this sentence, for example, “Egypt was by Ottoman law de jure a province of the Ottoman Empire, but de facto was part of the British Empire.” So, it's best not to use them interchangeably.

Related Article: 13 Essential Medical Terms You Will See Everywhere

5. Arraignment/ plea

Note the confusing spelling: arraignment and NOT arrangement. An arraignment refers to the formal reading of the charges made against the accused in their presence. In response to arraignment, the defendant is expected to make a plea, a formal statement of guilt or innocence in response to the charges.

6. Miranda rights

You may not be certain what Miranda rights are, but you’ve surely heard them being uttered if you’ve ever seen a detective movie. Miranda rights or the Miranda Warning is the speech law enforcement officers make while arresting a suspect. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…” the speech begins.

The Miranda warning was incorporated after a 1966 Supreme Court case: Miranda v. Arizona ruled that the defendant, Ernesto Miranda, confessed to a crime without being clearly informed of his rights against self-incrimination and legal representation. From then on, police officers are required to inform the arrestee of their right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer or a public defender present during an interrogation.

7. In camera/ in curia

Legal Terms blind law

There are two ways in which a case can be presented. In-camera proceedings, from the Latin “in the chamber”, are a case reviewed privately, without any public and press representatives. They are used when the privacy of the parties is crucial to maintain. Proceedings conducted in open court, on the other hand, are called in curia, from the Latin “in court.” The vast majority of cases are made public today.

8. Locus delicti

Here’s another Latin phrase that will be useful when you’re watching your favorite criminal drama. Locus delicti is the shorthand for the Latin phrase, Lex loci delicti commissi. It’s basically just a fancy way to refer to the scene where a crime took place. To learn more about useful and common Latin shortenings and abbreviations, read our article 7 Short Latin Phrases Everyone Should Know.

9. Modus operandi

Modus operandi is another famous legal phrase. It’s often abbreviated to simply M.O. Modus operandi, literally translated as “manner of operation,” refers to a specific pattern of criminal behavior, or a signature style, if you will, that is so distinctive that several crimes can be attributed to the same person.

10. Nolo contendere

Legal Terms crime scene

We’re all familiar with the guilty and not guilty pleas, but there’s actually a third, less known, option, too. A nolo contendere, or a no-contest plea, is one where the defendant neither admits nor denies the charges. In effect, it’s similar to the admission of guilt, but it allows the accused to deny the charges later on.

11. Non compos mentis

Non compos mentis describes an individual’s inability to perform some legal act or carry a legal responsibility for their wrongful actions due to the inability to think clearly or due to mental illness. This phrase first appeared in English in the 13th century, and it referred to describe individuals with impaired reasoning, memory loss, and those “afflicted by madness.”

12. Sine die

Sometimes, the court is postponing a case without specifying a date to re-convene. If this happens, the case is said to be adjourned sine die, or indefinitely. The phrase is of Latin origin, it can be translated as “without a day” into English.

13. Ultra vires

Legal Terms law

How would you describe a character in a TV show, usually a brave detective, who ignores the rules and goes beyond his (or her) own jurisdiction to save the day? Conveniently, there’s a Latin legal term that describes just that. Ultra vires, which is Latin for “beyond strength,” is an act done beyond one's legal power or authority or outside one’s jurisdiction.

14. Act of God

The term Act of God often appears in contracts and legal documents, but why? Well, that’s because it’s actually a clever legal term that refers to any unforeseen act that blocks the contract’s execution, like a natural hazard, e.g. an earthquake or tsunami. The term often appears when you’re signing insurance contracts, so make sure you know how the other party defines it before you sign.

15. Default Judgment

The last term we will discuss today is Default judgment. This is the ruling that is made when the defendant fails to appear in court. As you may imagine, the default judgment is usually made in favor of the plaintiff and not the defendant, so it’s always best to show up when summoned to court, even in minor cases.

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