Please find below a list of foreign words and phrases which have been asked before in law entrance exams or is likely to be asked. The word, the language of origin, its literal meaning in that language and where the meaning attributed to that word in the modern sense has changed the same has also been provided. This is followed by a sentence to indicate the usage of that word.
In the examination it is more likely that the meaning sought will be the one used in the modern context but the actual meaning of the words in the foreign language can also be asked.
We would like to thank Jatin Lalwani from the Batch of 2022, the National Law School of India University for his contribution in making this article. The cartoon set as featured image is by Alex Jones who created the Queen’s Counsel cartoon strips for The Times (published on 23rd July 2015).
• Per incuriam (Latin):
Literal meaning: through lack of care
In modern context: Used to refer to a decision which was made without giving due regard to applicable statutory provisions or judgments.
Usage: the decision of the lower court was set aside as it was made per incuriam.
• Autrefois convict (French):
Meaning: ‘formerly convicted’.
If a defendant has been previously convicted of the same offence at a previous trial, then this is a plea in bar of the second trial. Article 20(2) of the Constitution guarantees all persons the fundamental right that they shall not be convicted and punished for the same offence twice.
Usage: A plea of autrefois convict can be combined with a plea of not guilty.
• Autrefois acquit (French):
Meaning ‘formerly acquitted’
Section 300 of the Criminal Procedure Code provides a statutory right to not be tried for the same offence in which he has been acquitted if no new important fact indicating his guilt has come to light.
Usage: A plea of autrefois acquit is not as strong a defence in India as that of autrefois convict
• Lex Loci(Latin):
Literal meaning: Law of the place
In modern context: Used to indicate that the law applicable to a party will be the law of the country (or state or jurisdiction) in which a crime or tort was committed, contract was entered into, or a property is situated.
Usage: The parties must be competent according to the lex loci contractus, or the law where the contract was concluded.
• Lex fori(Latin):
Literal meaning: Laws of a forum
In modern context: Used to indicate that the law applicable must be that of the country (or state or jurisdiction) where the suit is bought and not that of country where the act was committed. The term is relevant in international law matters where act was committed in one country but case is being bought in another country.
Usage: Lex fori will govern the procedural aspects of how the court operates while the substantial rights of the parties will be determined as per the law of the country where the act was committed.
• Lis Pendens (Latin):
Meaning a pending legal action
Usage: His release date was approaching when he would face new charges related to the “lis pendens” filings.
• Faux Pas (French):
Literal meaning: A false step
In modern context: an embarrassing or tactless act or remark in a social situation.
Usage: Campaigning last year seemed to convince her that she can venture out alone without making costly faux pas.
• Bona Vacantia (Latin):
Literal meaning: Vacant goods
In modern context: Property over which no one has made a claim, ownerless property.
Usage: Even if an object does not qualify as treasure trove, it may be claimed by the Crown as “bona vacantia “.
• In Pari Delicto (Latin):
Meaning: In equal fault.
Usage: Both the parties were in pari delicto.
• In Pari Materia (Latin):
Literal meaning: Upon the subject
In modern context: Used to refer to statutes which were enacted at different times but pertaining to the same subject or object.
Usage: The two statutes are in pari material as they both share the same object, thus both statutes must be interpreted in light of each other.
• Pari Passu (Latin):
Meaning: side by side; at the same rate or on an equal footing.
Usage: early opera developed pari passu with solo song.
• Jus Gentium (Latin):
Literal meaning: Law of nations
In modern context: Used to mean international law.
Usage: Jus Gentium is the natural law that applies between nations.
• Punctum Temporis (Latin):
Meaning: A point of time; an indivisible period of time.
Usage: We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a punctum temporis in life is inevitable.
• Turpis Arbiter (Latin):
Meaning: Corrupt Judge.
Usage: Such turpis arbiter are very bad for the legal system of a country.
• Turpis Causa (Latin):
Literal Meaning: Immoral Cause
In modern context: Used to refer to immoral, illegal or base considerations underlying a contract which will have the effect of rendering the contract void (not binding between the parties).
Usage: The contract was for the purpose of paying bribe to a public servant and thus is turpis causa.
• Caveat Emptor(Latin):
Meaning: Buyer beware
In modern context: The buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality of the products before making the purchase.
Usage: The sale is subject to the caveat emptor principle.
• Caveat Venditor (Latin):
Meaning: Seller beware
In modern context: The seller will be responsible for the sale of defective or subpar products which are sold by him.
Usage: The principle of “caveat venditor ” is only applicable if the seller wishes to stay in business.
• Sine Die (Latin):
Literal meaning: ‘without a day’
In modern context: Anything which is postponed without any future date being designated.
Usage: the case was adjourned sine die
• Animus Possidendi (Latin):
Meaning: An intention to possess
Usage: An alternative term for animus occupandi (intention to occupy) is animus possidendi.
• Malus (Latin):
Literal meaning: Bad or Evil
In modern context: The return of performance-related compensation originally paid by an employer to an employee as a result of the discovery of a defect in the performance; a penalty.
Usage: When bank fired the loan originator, they recovered the last two years of her bonuses under the malus clause in her contract.
• Ab initio (Latin):
Meaning: From the beginning
Usage: The request for limitation or revocation has effect “ab initio “.
• Amicus Curiae (Latin):
Literal Meaning: Friend of the court.
In modern context: Used to refer to an impartial advisor appointed by the court to examine the legal issues in a case and give his opinion on them.
Usage: Amicus curiae greatly expand the abilities of the judges to find the real case.
• Alibi (Latin):
Literal meaning: Elsewhere
In modern context: a claim or piece of evidence that one was elsewhere when an act, typically a criminal one, is alleged to have taken place.
Usage: she has an alibi for the whole of yesterday evening.
• Writ of Quo Warranto:
Meaning: Used to refer to a written command by the court requiring a person to show what authority he has holding for holding office or exercising the rights or powers they claim to hold.
Quo warranto (Latin): meaning ‘by what authority’
Usage: There are no reported cases of “quo warranto” having been issued in Singapore.
• Writ Of Prohibition:
Meaning: An order from a superior court to a lower court or tribunal directing the judge and the parties to cease the litigation because the lower court does not have proper jurisdiction to hear or determine the matters before it.
Usage: They had issued writs of prohibition against the Federal Court.
• Writ of Certiorari:
Meaning Writ that a superior appellate court issues in its discretion to an inferior court, ordering it to produce a certified record of a particular case it has tried, in order to determine whether any irregularities or errors occurred that justify review of the case.
Certiorari (Latin): meaning ‘to be fully informed’
Usage: Writ of Certiorari was filed and granted by the Supreme Court.
• Writ of Mandamus:
Meaning: A writ of mandamus is an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering the government official to properly fulfil their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion.
Mandamus (Latin): meaning ‘we command’
Usage: The Court issued a writ of mandamus to settle the dispute
• Writ of Habeas Corpus:
Meaning: A writ of habeas corpus is a court order to a person or agency holding someone in custody.
Habeas corpus (Latin): meaning ‘you shall have the body’
Usage: A habeas corpus petition was filed before the court to compel the police to produce a person who was being held in unlawful custody.
• Audi alteram partem (Latin):
Literal meaning: let the other side be heard as well.
This maxim is used to state that no person shall be judged without being given an opportunity to respond to the allegations and the evidence against him.
Usage: The doctrine of audi alteram partem must be followed in every court.
• Obiter Dictum/Dicta (Latin):
Literal meaning: Something that is said in passing
In modern context: a judge’s expression of opinion uttered in court or in a written judgement, but not essential to the decision and therefore not legally binding as a precedent (part of the judgment that is binding on courts below it).
Usage: Courts may consider “obiter dicta” in opinions of higher courts though it is not binding on them.
• Persona Non grata (Latin):
Literal meaning: Person not appreciated
In modern context: an unacceptable or unwelcome person, a person whose entering or remaining in the country is prohibited by the country’s government.
Usage: Nabokov was persona non grata with the regime.
• Ex officio (Latin):
Meaning: by virtue of one’s position or status
Usage: The PM is the ex officio chairman of NITI Aayog.
• Quid Pro quo (Latin):
Literal meaning: Something for something
In modern context: a favour or advantage granted in return for something.
Usage: There’s a quid pro quo for everything in politics – you’ll soon learn that.
• Ultra vires (Latin):
Meaning: Beyond one’s legal power or authority.
Usage: jurisdictional errors render the decision ultra vires.
• Intra Vires (Latin):
Meaning: Within themselves; within the power.
This phrase is used to indicate that the act was within the legal power or authority of the person or body. Antonym of ultra vires.
Usage: The Supreme Court unanimously held that both measures were “intra vires”
• Inter Vivos (Latin):
Meaning: A transaction made between living people.
Usage: property transferred inter vivos.
• Corpus Juris (Latin):
Meaning: Body of law, to indicate the collection of law on a particular subject
Usage: An immense space in the Corpus juris is occupied with testamentary law.
• Quantum Ramifactus (Latin):
Meaning: The amount of damages suffered.
Usage: in civil cases Quantum Ramifactus are decided by the court.
• Corpus Delicti (Latin):
Literal meaning: Body of offence
In modern context: the facts and circumstances constituting a crime.
Usage: The Utah Supreme Court granted certiorari to examine the concept of corpus delicti.
• Carte Blanche (French):
Literal meaning: Blank paper
In modern context: complete freedom to act as one wishes.
Usage: the architect given carte blanche to design the store.
• Vis-a-vis (French):
Meaning: in relation to; facing a specified or implied subject.
Usage: he was there vis-à-vis with Miss Arundel
• Tabula rasa(Latin):
Literal meaning: A scraped tablet
In modern context: An absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals; a clean slate.
Usage: the team did not have complete freedom and a tabula rasa from which to work.
• De Jure (Latin):
Meaning: As per law, sanctioned by law.
Usage: he had been de jure king since his father’s death.
• Raison d’etre (French):
Meaning: the most important reason for the existence of something.
Usage: They do not question the raison d’être of the process, they just follow it.
• Ratio Decidendi (Latin):
Literal meaning: the reason for deciding
In modern context: The reason for the decision of the court.
Usage: The ratio decidendi of the higher court is binding on the lower court.
• Ex parte decision:
Meaning: Decision given in the absence of one party.
Ex parte is a Latin word meaning ‘from a side’ to indicate that it was made with respect to or in favour of one side only.
Usage: The court granted an ex parte decision in favour of the plaintiff as the defendant had failed to appear in court for the trial.
• Ipso facto (Latin):
Meaning: By the very fact or act.
Usage: the enemy of one’s enemy may be ipso facto a friend
• Pro rata (Latin):
Meaning: In proportion, or proportionately.
Usage: as the pound has fallen costs have risen on a pro rata basis
• Vice versa (Latin):
Literal meaning: ‘the other way round’.
Used to indicate that the reverse of what has been stated is also true.
Usage: dancers can teach actors a lot and vice versa
• Status quo(Latin):
Literal meaning: The state in which
Modern context: It means that the existing state of affair will continue as it is with no change being made or caused.
Usage: they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo
• Prima facie(Latin):
Meaning: Based on first impression, at first view.
Usage: This is a prima facie case of professional misconduct.
• Bona Fide (Latin):
Meaning: with good intention or in good faith; without intention to deceive.
Usage: the court will assume that the defendants have acted bona fide
• Mala Fide (Latin)
Meaning: with bad intention or in bad faith: with an intention to wrong
Usage: the court will assume that the defendants have acted mala fide