Legally Informed: Latin Derived Legal Terms to Know

In this blog, we’ll cover legal terms that are Latin derived and commonly used in cases.  For example, you may have seen “ex parte” or “pro bono” before, but what do they mean?

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Legal terminology can be complicated and confusing unless you are a party in the justice system yourself. Ohio Legal Help seeks to make the justice system more accessible so that people feel empowered to resolve their legal problems. Our blog series, Legally Informed, will help you understand common terms used in the courtroom and cases.

In this blog, we’ll cover legal terms that are Latin derived and commonly used in cases.  For example, you may have seen “ex parte” or “pro bono” before, but what do they mean? If you haven’t read our blogs about common legal terms, read through those first to better understand some of the other terms in this blog.

Ex parte

Like much of language, Latin legal terminology has been passed down through history. When faced with a legal issue, you may run into terms that are Latin derived and not be sure what they mean. One of the more common terms is “Ex parte,” which directly means “from (for) one party.” In plain language, it refers to a decision reached, or case brough, by or for one party without the other party being present.

Ex parte hearings often happen when someone is seeking to get a domestic or dating violence civil protection order. On the day that you file for a protection order, the Court will hold an emergency hearing, called an ex parte hearing. The abuser does not attend the ex parte hearing. At this hearing, you (and your lawyer, if you have one) meet with the judge. The judge reviews your forms and may ask you some questions. Then, the judge decides if you need an emergency ex parte protection order that starts immediately. Because the other party (the abuser) is not present for this, it is called an ex parte hearing.

Amicus curiae

Amicus curiae literally translated from Latin mean “friend of the court,” but in plain language it means a person or group who offers information to a court regarding a case before it. The person or group is not a party in the case but could have a strong interest in the outcome. In recent years, it has been common to see an advocacy group such as the ACLU or the NAACP file an amicus brief in Supreme Court cases. The National Association of Attorneys General also submit amicus briefs on a variety of issues.

Caveat emptor

Caveat emptor means “let the buyer beware” in Latin, but more commonly is a legal principle that places the responsibility on the buyer to examine and evaluate a product or service before making the purchase. In other words, it protects the seller from defects found after purchase and the buyer would not be able to get relief.

An example of caveat emptor would be the purchase of a used car between two private parties. As the buyer, you have the responsibility of researching and inspecting the car before purchasing. If something happens after the sale, you are responsible, not the seller. However, this does not mean that sellers should engage in fraudulent transactions. It’s important to protect yourself from consumer fraud.

While most sales in the U.S. offer some protection like a warranty and guarantee the product will work or your money back, some sales are “sold as is” – meaning, you will get what you get. A common “sold as is” scenario would be items purchased from a garage sale.

Cars are also sometimes sold as is, meaning the car is not covered by a warranty and you, as the buyer, would be responsible for repairs. For tips on what to look for when buying or repairing a car, visit the Ohio Attorney General’s website.

Mea culpa

In Latin, mea culpa means literally “through my fault.” In other words, it is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing or admission that a mistake was made that could have been avoided. In legal cases, sometimes a mea culpa is through an admission or stipulation of fault, but it is not common.

Mens rea

In Latin, mens rea means “guilty mind.” This refers to the intent to commit a crime. This essentially is the basis for the notion that those without sufficient mental capability cannot be judged guilty of a crime, since they may lack the intent to commit a crime.

Mens rea is more commonly used in criminal law but could come up in a civil lawsuit. For example, in a civil lawsuit for defamation, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant made a false statement with the intent to harm their reputation. The mens rea of the defendant, or mental state, is important in determining whether they are held liable for defamation.


In Latin, praecipe means “order.” In law, it is most often referring to a writ of praecipe, which is a document that either orders a defendant to appear and show cause why an act or thing should not be done, or it requests that the clerk of court do something like issue a subpoena, request service or a certificate of judgment. The term praecipe is interchangeably used with a request for the clerk.

Pro Bono

In Latin, pro bono means “for good.” Many attorneys do pro bono work, or professional work done for free. Many people find themselves unable to afford to pay for legal representation, and sometimes attorneys may be able to take on their case pro bono and provide services for free.

Legal aids are non-profit law firms that provide free legal help to low-income people and pro bono attorneys often partner with a legal aid to volunteer their time and services. When you contact legal aid they will ask you some questions about yourself and your problem. Then they will let you know if they are able to help or if they can connect you with a pro bono attorney. Unfortunately, legal aid has limited resources and cannot always help everyone.

To find your local legal aid, use our Find Your Legal Aid tool.

Res judicata

In Latin, res judicata means “a matter judged” or “a matter decided.” It’s a legal principle that means a case has had a final judgment, meaning no further appeals or legal actions by the parties involved can happen again in the future. It can be used by a court to deny reconsideration of a case or matter. For the parties involved in a case, a defendant may use res judicata or collateral estoppel as a defense if they believe that they are being sued on the same set of facts if the plaintiff tries to relitigate an old case.


In Latin, subpoena means “under penalty.” Today, subpoena refers to a formal written order or “writ” compelling testimony, the production of evidence, or some other action, and is under penalty for failure to do so. Subpoenas are usually issued by the clerk or judge presiding over a case.

Subpoenas can be a powerful tool in a civil case to gather information or evidence from people who may be reluctant to provide it. For example, one spouse in a divorce case may not want to provide their financial details to the other party, so a subpoena could be issued to the spouse’s employer or bank.

Subpoenas may also be used to call a witness to a hearing. The subpoena acts as a summons telling your witness when, where and at what time they need to appear in court. Your witness can use this summons to get the day off work if they need to. Once your witness gets that summons, they are required to show up. Otherwise, they could get in trouble with the court.

It’s important to note that individuals cannot issue a subpoena, only a clerk or judge presiding over an active civil case or authorized government agency may do so.