Latin Legal Terms No One Would Know: Part II

In part one of our series on latin legal terms no one would know, we mentioned phrases like bona fide, actus reus, alibi, and ab initio. You probably recognized bona fide and alibi — because they’re words we use all the time thanks to TV courtroom dramas — but you probably didn’t know their exact meaning in latin or why we use them in court. Here are a few more!

Corpus delicti means “body of the crime.” This is a phrase that might be used by an LA, NYC, or DC personal injury lawyer discussing why a particular criminal act resulted in a certain set of consequences (such as death or personal injury or even financial loss). The phrase is sometimes used to indicate a particular piece of evidence that relates to a specific crime.

De facto means “in reality.” It might be used to refer to a social code of conduct, for example, that was never actually written down or codified into law. Another example occurs when a country has no official language, but one in particular is spoken more than anything other. That spoken language is the de facto national language. 

De jure means “by right.” The Old English law “prima nocta” would fall under this category because it is a “right” by law. Prima nocta refers to the right for a king to have sexual intercourse with a subject on her wedding night (but there is little evidence to support this right ever really existed: sorry Braveheart fans). 

Ex parte means “on behalf of.” This phrase refers to either a legal strategy or a judge’s decision to hold court without the involvement of the other side. A divorce court proceeding in which one parent refuses to attend the court summons might result in an ex parte judgement on behalf of the remaining parents, for example, during a child custody hearing.

Ex post facto means “after the fact.” An ex post facto ruling is applied retroactively. Let’s say, for example, that prohibition-era laws are suddenly reinstated tomorrow. If the courts turned totalitarian and decided to start arresting people ex post facto for breaking the new law, it means they could be arrested for drinking alcohol a year ago. Thankfully, the United States Constitution doesn’t not allow ex post facto laws. If Congress decides something is against the law tomorrow, you cannot legally be arrested for breaking that law yesterday.

In camera can be confusing since it’s an English “false friend” or a latin word that looks like an English word. It means “in chambers.” A judge might order a trial in camera, which means that it might take place behind closed doors (and out of the public eye). These rulings usually occur during adoption or guardianship cases.

In limine means “on the threshold.” This is a phrase used when one side of the courtroom believes that the other side is using prejudicial evidence that should be excluded from the case. For example, a 1948 Supreme Court case resulted in a ruling that a prosecutor cannot use a defendant’s past crimes in order to prove the one for which he was being tried now because that would be in limine.