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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | Latin Anyone?

The is a lot of Latin in law and this would be an understatement.

I have been asked in the past, by students mostly but also by others, why there are so many legal terms in Latin, particularly considering that it is already a dead language, meaning that it is not really in widespread use anywhere in the world.

Some would say that this is because lawyers like to be a cut above the rest and terms in Latin would not be readily understood by most which is a long way of saying, you’d need to pay a lawyer to explain it to you.

However convincing this sounds, this is not quite the case. I mean many lawyers do think too highly of themselves but this is not the reason why many legal principles or maxims are stated in Latin.

The simplest explanation I could find which, according to Occam’s razor, is usually the correct one, is the fact that Latin used to be the universal language of scholars which means that when learned men from different places would meet and discuss in the olden times, they would do so in Latin.

Since the evolution of the law, as well as of the Christian Church to which it is closely related, was the purview of scholars and academics, it stands to reason that the language used by them was largely Latin.

I would like to point out that I am referring to the evolution of law in the Western World which has found its way to the legal systems of most countries by way of conquest and imperialism along the centuries. You would certainly not find any Latin maxims in the highly evolved legal system of China during its different Imperial Dynasties.

Our own legal system in the Philippines, as is anything Filipino, is a mixed system, most of which came from the different countries that colonized us. Our criminal law is largely Spanish, while our commercial law is mostly American and our civil law, while mostly Spanish, is really a mix.

Anyway, either way you go, both the Spaniards and the Americans trace their legal roots to Roman law, ERGO, we use many Latin maxims in our legal system.

Many do not realize it but there are indeed many terms in Latin that we use, and misuse, every day. PER SE is Latin for “as it is” or “by itself” and “BONA FIDE” means “good faith” though I have heard people say that their product is “bona fide” when they actually mean genuine. PRO BONO is a term that indigent clients benefit from but which many lawyers try to avoid. (Joke, I hope)

“CORPUS DELICTI” is one of the most misunderstood, sometimes even by lawyers, because of the literal translation as the “BODY OF THE CRIME” when it actually means the “substance or essence of the crime”. For example, in a case for homicide, while you need to prove the “corpus delicti”, there is no need to bring the dead corpse to court as it is NOT the “body of the crime”.

As it is, the people at large do not really need to study up on these Latin terms, that is what you pay your lawyers for. Actually, if at all possible, I do try to avoid using them even in my legal writings and I also advise my students to do likewise.

I have always lived by the principle that you write or speak in order to communicate which means the intention is to get yourself understood as easily as possible. You cannot do that by citing one Latin maxim after another and then spending two or more paragraphs explaining what you mean.

On the other hand, I have also told my students, particularly when I was still teaching Statutory Construction so many years ago, to commit to memory as many Latin maxims as they can.

This is not only in preparation for crazy questions in the Bar Exams, it is also useful in case they do not become lawyers and decide, instead to become faith healers or albularyos and they can wave their hands over a patient’s head while mumbling dura lex sed lex, in loco parentis, ipso facto!

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