Breaking Down Legal-ese: The Language of Law

Whether you are a student stepping into law for the first time, or just need the terminology put into layman's terms, these 9 essential ‘legal-ese’ terms are always useful to know.

Law can be complicated, even if you’ve studied it for years. Imagine if you weren’t a student of the field – even a simple term a solicitor uses without thinking could go well over your head. This is the one field where that can’t really happen. Just nodding your head and hoping that it is correct could land you in some trouble further down the line. 

That’s why it’s important to have a firm grasp on what certain terms mean. For some, these might be blindingly obvious. For others, this could really help them out and save them some headaches later on. Below, the team at MHHP Law have broken down some of these confusing terms that the layman wouldn’t be blamed for not understanding. 


  • Stare decisis


When cases are difficult to decide upon, ‘stare decisis’ may be called upon. This is where an older case, with many similar qualities, could be referred to as an example of how to continue with the present case. Translated from Latin, it means “to stand by things decided”. 


  • Wobbler


This can be used to describe a crime that could be classified as either a misdemeanour or a felony. In some cases, stare decisis (see above for definition) may be employed here to use a precedent that has already been set. Even if someone has been charged with an official felony, a judge would still have the power to reduce the sentence of this to that of a misdemeanour. 


  • Provisional remedy


This may be used to protect someone or something while a final decision on the legal action is waiting to be made. An example of this would be, in a case where a building’s status as a landmark is being disputed, a temporary injunction may be used as a provisional remedy to stop the destruction of the building. This would only be provisional, however – until the final decision is made. 


  • Eminent domain  


The right of the government to take private property and convert it into public use without the property owner’s consent. An example of this is if a government entity deems that a privately owned piece of land may be required for public interest, they are able to use ‘eminent domain’ to support the purchase of said land regardless of whether the owner wants to sell it. This allows the government to acquire land for the benefit of the general public rather than having to be at the mercy of private landowners. This can become a more difficult issue however if land owners feel that there is sentimental value attached to their property.


  • Lacuna


A ‘Lacuna’ in the law, is the term given to any situation where there is no applicable law in place. This situation is also less commonly described as a ‘non liquet’. The latin meaning of this being ‘it is not clear’. 

It is a matter where no law currently exists however a body of opinion believes there should be one. Strictly speaking, a ‘non liquet’ could mean that the case will forever be non-justiciable, however a ‘lacuna’ highlights an area that requires more clarity and should be governed by the law in future. 

Lacunae can allow certain issues to be exploited or avoided, potentially creating ‘loopholes’ in the law. 


  • Intestate


‘Intestate’ is the word used to describe a person who passes away without having left a valid will. In the case of ‘Intestacy’ there are certain that then must be followed in order to share out their estate. Another term for this is ‘the law of descent and distribution’. 

The Intestacy Rules have been the same since 1925 in England and Wales,  with similar rules in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They ensure a fair provision can be made for a dependent spouse or relative should there otherwise be an unfair result.


  • Actus reus


‘Actus Reus’ is the latin for ‘guilty act’. This is the physical external element of a crime, that is made criminal when committed in conjunction with ‘mens rea’ – a ‘guilty mind’.

These law terms were derived from the statement “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, which means: “ An act does not make a person guilty unless their mind is also guilty”.

In general law jurisdiction, guilt is decided not only on the action alone but the verdict also requires proof of culpability or fault in thought.


  • Caveat emptor


‘Caveat Emptor’ is Latin for “Let the buyer beware”, a phrase you may well have heard before. The premise is that the buyer is singularly responsible for quality checking before purchasing. This principle is generally applied to the sale of property but can also apply to other goods. This phrase may sometimes be found in legal contracts by way of a disclaimer to protect the seller. 


  • Demurrer


A ‘demurrer’ is essentially an objection. It is a pleading that challenges or objects to the worthiness of the opposition’s plea.

The word ‘demurrer’ itself refers to the document that makes an objection. The word ‘demur’ meaning “to object. 

This objection is not to deny the truth of the opposition’s allegation, but to object against the validity of this plea. A demurrer insists that, while the allegation may be true, there are no grounds for further legal action. 

Whether you are a student stepping into law for the first time, or just need the terminology put into layman’s terms, these 9 essential ‘legal-ese’ terms are always useful to know.

These simple breakdowns will help you to get your head around basic legal terms, making understanding law a whole lot easier. For even more expert advice and tailored guidance get in touch with MHHP Law today.

Jack Bird is a writer for MHHP Law. Here, he combines his passion for writing with his knowledge of the legal system, which has seen him write for major blogs all over the internet.

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