Law school is full of large textbooks featuring Latin legal terms that you may or may not already be familiar with. As you enter into your first year in law school, it is possible that you are overwhelmed by the number of terms you need to know. To help you counteract some of this confusion and feel better prepared for law school, we’ve compiled a list of 15 essential Latin legal terms that you can study up on before entering law school. You may see these terms in textbooks, lectures, or case studies and will likely use them throughout your time in law school and your future legal career.
Why Is Learning Latin Legal Terms Important?
The legal system used in the United States today has its roots in ancient Rome – the Romans once ruled over large areas of what is now known as Europe, and the legal system in the United States developed from the first European colonies, resulting in a large carryover of Latin legal terms in today’s lawyering textbooks and methodologies.
It is important to learn these legal terms because not only will you need to understand key Latin phrases during your time in law school, you will also encounter these terms throughout your legal career. While there are many important Latin legal phrases that you should know, below, we have selected some of the most important ones for a 1L student to become familiar with.
15 Latin Legal Terms You Should Know
The following Latin legal terms will commonly be encountered during your 1L year. Therefore, you should make an effort to get familiar with them now and save yourself stress further down the line.
1. Ex Parte: On Behalf Of
In general, ex parte refers to something that is one in the benefit of one party in a legal case. This is usually a decision that is made in favor of one party without waiting for an opinion from the other side. Ex parte may also refer to improper contact with a party or a judge, such as meeting with the party or the judge without a lawyer from the opposing side present.
2. Habeas Corpus: That You Have the Body
Habeas corpus usually refers to a ‘Writ of Habeas Corpus,’ which is used by courts to determine whether or not the detention of a prisoner is valid. When a court issues a writ of habeas corpus, the prisoner or detainee (in the case of a person admitted to a mental health facility) will be brought before the court and their case reviewed. Typically, writs of habeas corpus precede civil action against the entity holding the detained person, such as a state warden or attorney general.
3. Certiorari: To Be More Fully Informed
Certiorari is more commonly seen as a part of the phrase “Writ of Certiorari.” It refers to the court process of seeking an appeal or review by a higher court for a legal decision made in a lower court or by a government agency. You can read more about the certiorari process here.
4. Quasi: As If
The term is usually used as a prefix before any word to indicate that something resembles but is not actually like a certain thing. For example, an attorney may state that something is a quasi-contract, meaning that the item looks like a contract but is not an actual contract.
5. Pro Bono Publico: For the Public Good
Usually shortened to just ‘pro bono,’ this term refers to the work that legal professionals undertake as they provide their services for free to individuals who may be in need. This work is considered for the public good and is an important part of being a practicing attorney. More can be read about the importance of pro bono work here.
6. Mandamus: We Command
Mandamus, also known as a ‘Writ of Mandamus” is an order from a higher court to any public official, government agency, or lower court to complete a specific action. It cannot be used to make a court or official do something that is against the law, but it can be used to order lower courts into making a decision or ruling when they have previously refused to indicate a judgment.
7. De Novo: From the New
This term is used to refer to the process of an appellate court reviewing a case without reference to the legal conclusions or assumptions of any lower courts. In this case, the higher court is hearing the case “de novo,” or completely from the new without outside opinion.
8. Ad Litem: For the Suit
Attorneys are appointed “ad litem” for lawsuits by the court. These appointments are usually reserved for parties that have a legal interest or partaking in the case but are unable to represent themselves, such as children or certain incapacitated adults.
9. Amicus Curiae: Friend of the Court
An amicus curiae refers to someone who is not a party in a particular legal case but who assists the court by offering their information, expertise, or other important insight that has relevancy for the case’s issues. This information is typically given in the form of an ‘amicus brief’ and does not carry any legal weight; it is instead intended to provide perspective or additional information to support one side of a legal argument in a particular case.
10. In Camera: In Private
The term ‘in camera’ literally means ‘in chambers,’ but it is commonly used to refer to something being reviewed entirely in private. Usually, this term will refer to issues of a legal case that are held privately before the judge and away from both the press and the public.
11. Per Curiam: By the Court
Decisions made per curiam are rulings made unanimously, with the written decision collectively authored by the court instead of by one or two individual judges.
12. In Forma Pauperis: In the Manner of a Pauper
In forma pauperis refers to the action of one party filing a motion with the court in order to receive waived court costs. It is typically used when one party in a legal case can’t afford the processes of court. More information on filing procedures can be found here.
13. In Re: In the Matter Of
A commonly used term in case names, this phrase generally refers to cases without two parties. It may refer to an estate or a legal case that only has one person concerned, such as an estate case.
14. Pros Se: In One’s Own Behalf
This term may also be translated to “for oneself” and refers to the actions of litigants who represent themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney. Any defendant or party in a legal case does have the right to refuse legal counsel and utilize self-representation.
15. Sua Sponte: Of One’s Own Accord
Sua sponte may also be translated to mean “voluntarily.” This term refers to whether or not a court has taken notice or action in a case without prompting or a suggestion from either party involved in the case.
Improving Your Legal Latin Skills
It may feel like Latin legal terms are everywhere as you enter your first year of law school, but you don’t have to be overwhelmed by their presence. Learning these terms a few at a time and understanding when to apply them is helpful for your overall law school success. Make sure to review our list of essential terms and study the definitions of any new Latin legal term you come across in your 1L year, so you’re prepared to sound like a pro when answering questions in class and completing your first law school assignments.