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Why is Latin still used in legal English?

Many latin terms are still used in English law. Legal English UK investigates why that is and introduces you to a few key Latin terms.

There are a few years which are locked into the minds of schoolchildren across England: the end of World War Two (1945), the end of World War One (1918) and the Norman Invasion of 1066.

In 1066, William of Normandy invaded and successfully occupied England.

Before that point, England's laws were a hodgepodge/ragbag (a mix) of different rules and customs from region to region. If you committed a crime in one region you might get a completely different punishment compared with committing a crime in a different region.

A royal takeover

As with any takeover, the winners were able to play their part in changing the system and many Norman (old French) words were introduced into the English language.

The Normans began to introduce a more uniform legal system similar to the one that already existed in France.

Norman laws were written down in Latin and so as with many aspects of the Northern French system, English law followed suit.

So while many Brits spoke English court records were written in Legal Latin up until at least 1733 when The Proceedings of Justice in Court Act took effect. This act stipulated that all court proceedings be recorded in English.

However, some Latin terms still survive in English and Welsh law to this day. Here are a few of them:

Latin English Example

Ad hoc For this purpose "They set up an ad hoc committee."

In absentia In his/her absence "The defendant was tried in absentia."

In camera In private "The case was heard in camera."

Modus operandi Method of working "The thief had a modus operandi."

Stare decisis Precedent "Binding precedent relies on stare decisis."

Legal English UK runs online classes for lawyers and law students looking to gain confidence and fluency in English for Law. Contact us for further information.


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