Saturday, November 17, 2007

Latin & law

The presence of the Latin language in the register of law clearly indicates the strong Roman influence on legal systems the world over. In the UK and the US, a parallel system, called Common Law, is the basis for our legal system: judgments and punishments are based on precedent, that is, on rulings that judges and juries have made in the past. This practice is termed stare decisis after the Latin original, which means ‘let the decision stand’.

Locus standi refers to ‘the right or capacity to bring about an action or to appear in a court’. In colloquial use, locus standi is taken to be synonymous with the word ‘standing’ and this indicates the Latin origin, which literally means ‘place of standing’.

`A0When an unforeseeable and uncontrollable event like a war or a strike exempts a party from a contract, the term force majeure is used. The word originally comes from French where it means ‘superior force’. In legal parlance, it is also used for acknowledging the activity of a superior force.

Per stripes is the method of dividing an estate in which each branch of the descendants of a deceased person receives an equal share. In Latin, the language of its origin, per stripes means, literally, ‘by roots’.

A ‘venireman’ is a person summoned as a prospective juror. The word comes from the Latin venire, which means ‘to come’. Venire forms part of the Latin expression venire facias, which was used to direct the sheriff to ‘cause people to come’. This expression created two related words, venire or ‘the panel of jurors’ and venire facias or ‘the writ asking an official to summon a jury’. A direction similar to venire facias is habeas corpus. This direction in Latin meant ‘thou shalt have the body (in court)’. In legal parlance, habeas corpus refers to ‘a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into a court, especially to secure the person’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for detention’. The term is also used for the legal right to apply for such a writ.