We often speak of “legalese” as a slightly pejorative term which means, for most of us, using a language that no one but lawyers understands. Which leads to the question,
Why do we still use Latin in so many court-related documents, including citations?
The reason is deeply rooted in the evolution of language and the conquering of lands. In prehistoric Britain the laws were in the vernacular, and based heavily on Celtic Law. After the conquest of Britain by the Romans in about 410 the language and law shifted to Anglo Saxon Law. Then we had a wave of French. Then there was the invasion of Normandy in 1066 which revolutionized culture, language (less English, more French and Latin), gave rise to castles, and new laws.
The Statute of Pleading
In 1362 the Statute of Pleading stated that all legal proceedings needed to be conducted in English but recorded in Latin. But we still had a lingering French repertoire in the lingo.
This is why some of our current legal terms are still a mish-mash of English, French and Latin. For example, “last will and testament” is English (will) and Latin (testament) and “breaking and entering” is English (breaking) and French (entering).
Why is a subpoena so intimidating?
While much of our use is historically based, some of it could be retained for the sake of formality and somewhat sadly, intimidation. Take, for example, the word “subpoena.”
At the end of a subpoena (a document compelling one to appear in court) may come “fail not, at your peril.” What exactly is this “peril” of which they speak, or threaten?
Basically it means you could be arrested and held in “contempt of court” (contempt comes from the Latin contemnere). But it wasn’t until the the 19th century that “contempt of court” became common usage. Of course what the whole “at your peril” just means you could be arrested if you fail to appear.
For a lively and insightful view into still used legal Latin and legalese, invite a law student, lawyer friend or relative to share their favorite Latin terms.