Latin Legal Terminology

Roman Law is the legal system invented by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. Having undergone the process of transformation and reinterpretation, Roman Law continues to influence legal thinking and legal practice to this day.

England has not adopted Roman Law as the other countries in Europe have. In England, ancient Roman texts were never considered as rules having the force of law. However, Roman Law was taught at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and had a considerable influence on the development of certain areas of law. Some substantive rules, and more importantly, concepts of reasoning based on the Roman legal tradition, influenced the English legal system.

Most important of all, Roman Law will have great significance in regard to the formation of uniform legal rules which further the process of political integration in Europe. Roman Law is the common foundation upon which the European legal order is built. Therefore, it can serve as a source of rules and legal norms that will easily blend with the national laws of the many and varied European states.

There are many Latin words and phrases that are still used in law. Some of you will come across them at work and our Students will be familiar with them through their course material.

Here is some common Latin legal terminology:

ab inito:  from the beginning.
actus reus:  the physical act.
ad idem:   towards the same (i.e .two or more parties are in agreement).
bona vacantia:  goods vacant of title.  The phrase specifically refers to property not disposed of by a deceased’s Will (e.g. there is no residual legatee),or there is no relation entitled under an intestacy.  Basically such assets pass to the Crown.

consensus ad idem: loosely means ‘meeting of minds’ – also see ‘ad idem’above.
contra bonos mores:  against good morals.
cui bono:   for whose benefit, or who profits by it (e.g. motive for a crime).
de novo:  from the beginning (or over again, as if for the first time).
doli incapax:  incapacity for guilt, i.e. incapable of breaching the law (usually due to age).
ex post facto:  by a subsequent act, usually used to describe a law which has retrospective effect.
intra vires:  within the power of the person or body exercising it.
ipso facto:  by virtue of that fact.
inter alia:  amongst other things.
mens rea:  the state of the mind of the thing.
non est factum:  not my deed.
nudum pactum:  bare agreement (e.g. an agreement not supported by consideration).
nulla bona:  no goods ( endorsed on a High Court Writ of Execution where High Court Enforcement Officers  find no goods (or insufficient goods) upon which to levy.              
nulla poenna sine lege:  no punishment without a law.
pari passu:  with equal ranking.
per incuriam:  by mistake (or lack of care) of the court.
prima facie:  with first sight  ( i.e.on the face of it).
pro bono:  for the good (usually meant as something done for a client by a professional without payment).
quantum meruit:  for what it’s worth (a quantum meruit claim is a claim for a percentage of the contract price in direct proportion to the percentage of work actually done).
quasi:  as if it were (e.g. a quasi-contract is an agreement which will be dealt with ‘as if; it was a contract).
ratione materiae:  relevant reasons (this has a very restricted application but an example is the immunity of a foreign diplomat to a breach of the law owing to the reason under a particular convention, that he/she is a diplomat).
sub judice:  under justice (it is a rule limiting public comment or disclosure of judicial proceedings that have already commenced so that there may be no undue influence on the court or a jury). 
uberrimae fidei:  utmost good faith.                       
ultra vires:  Exceeding (or outside the scope of):the power of the person or body exercising it.       
It can be seen that the law uses these kind of Latin expressions as a form of ‘shorthand’.  They can express a concept in a few words which otherwise could take many words to explain.