Understanding the Law
August 9, 2013

Foreign words in our legal system

Many words used in our laws have their foundation in other foreign languages, particularly Latin and French. Many of these words have retained their exact form and have been imported into our laws as if they are English words. Here are a few of those words with their meaning.{{more}}

1. Bona fide (Latin) meaning “in good faith”, genuine or sincere, not deceitful. The law speaks of performing in good faith, that is, without fraud or deceit. Blacks Law Dictionary describes a bona fide purchaser for value as one who purchases legal right to real property without having constructive notice of any infirmities, claims or equities against the title. Anyone who is a bona fide purchaser has a superior title because the purchaser is not affected by the fraud of the transferor against a third person.

2. Pro bono publico (Latin) shortened to pro bono, meaning “for the public good.” The words are associated with legal aid. It is where some lawyers give legal advice to members of the public free of cost. In SVG the Bar Association conducts legal aid and some lawyers make themselves available to persons who are poor and cannot afford legal fees. The words are also associated with work done by other professionals for free.

3. Nunc pro tunc (Latin) meaning “now for then”. The words are used to indicate the retroactive legal effect of the court’s action under its inherent powers. A court could state that the action takes effect from a date earlier than when the order is given.

4. Caveat emptor (Latin) “let the buyer beware”. A warning that a purchaser buys at his own risk, in other words, the risk is that of the buyer and not the seller. It is, however, limited by statute in its application. In probate matters, a caveat means that a formal notice of warning is given to the court, requesting a suspension of proceedings until the person giving the notice is heard. Less frequently used are caveat venditor, let the seller beware and caveat viator, let the traveller beware.

5. Actus reus (Latin) “guilty act” which is the wrongful deed that is part of a crime or the elements of the crime. This is coupled with the mens reus “the guilty mind” or the mental element to establish in a criminal court the criminal liability of the defendant. It is necessary for the prosecution to establish that the defendant had a criminal intent or recklessness to commit the act. When someone steals something from you it must be shown that that person had the intention of depriving you of that item. When someone kills another, it is regarded as murder if there was intention to kill.

6. Cestui que trust (French) is the person for whom a trust is created. The person is said to have an equitable interest in the estate while the person who is named trustee has the legal title. So, if a father makes a trust for the benefit of his son, the son is the cestui que trust.

7. Autrefois acquit (French) is a plea that the person has been acquitted and cannot be tried again on substantially the same evidence. The American law speaks of double jeopardy. There is also the plea of Autrefois convict, meaning that a person has been convicted on the same offence previously and cannot be convicted on the same again. These are also known as peremptory pleas.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.

E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com