In many legal systems around the world there are Latin phrases that carry specific meanings. It is an easy way of saying a whole paragraph of meaning while using a few short words. Some of these are only used in court systems. However, many of these phrases have made their way into vulgar (meaning common) conversations today.

a mensa et thoro – From table and bed

This is a legal separation. Often before a couple file for divorce they will have a separation by court order to allow them time to get their financial affairs divided and in order before proceeding with a divorce. Sometimes couples object to divorce for moral or religious reasons. They will file for a mensa et thoro instead of a divorce. If the couple wishes to reconcile while under legal separation, they can continue their marriage without any further court order. However, if they wish to proceed to divorce they will have to file for such separately.

bona fide – In good faith

In legal matters the intent of the person doing the action is often considered. If someone believes something to be true, he can proceed in good faith even if it turns out he was wrong. Because he acted bona fide, he may not be held accountable to the full extent of the law for his actions. In contract law the parties involved must act in good faith towards their obligations in the matter.

contra ius commune – Against common law

The word ius, or jus, meaning law is different than the words lex or leges which also mean law. The former has to do with ideals that are usually greater than the explicit written law. The latter is the written law or set of rules. Ius can also mean the rights of those under the law. In other words, something that is contra ius commune is something that is against accepted practices, even if it is not against a specific line item of the law.

corpus delicti – Body of crime

Before one can be convicted of committing a crime, there must be proof that a crime has been committed. Often this is used to say that a murder has not been committed unless a dead body can be produced. However, this can be used in any crime, not just those involving a corpus or body.

de facto – Concerning fact

It is something used in common practice, but not necessarily established by law. When heard commonly this is referring to a de facto standard. This is a standard that is accepted in practice even though there may not be any governing body or standards agency which has dubbed it as a standard. For example, Microsoft Office has long been accepted as the de facto office suite in for businesses even though there are no laws that dictate that fact.

de jure – Concerning law

This is a term that means something has a legal status and is often used in contrast to the term de facto. A way to think of these two terms is that de jure is the principle and de facto is the practice. Bear wrestling in Alabama is prohibited de jure (by law), however, in most states it is prohibited de facto (by common sense).

dictum – Statement

There are several types of dicta in the legal field. A dictum proprium is the personal statement or opinion of the judge that may, or may not be legally binding and usually not essential to the ruling. Gratis dictum is when a person makes a statement or assertion when not obligated by law to do so. A judicial dictum is statement by a court on something involved with the case, but is not essential to the decision. Obiter dictum is something said in passing. Simplex dictum is a dogmatic or unproven statement.

habeas corpus – Bring forth the body

It is the term used when a judge requests the presence of a prisoner. It is the basis of arrest warrants when a judge gives authority to the police to arrest a suspect. Habeas corpus is the court order used to have a prisoner released from custody to appear before him. The body referred to is the prisoner. Habeas corpus is a protection against unlawful arrest and imprisonment.

ipso facto – By the fact itself

The results are a direct consequence of the action in question. This is in opposition to the results being a consequence of some verdict of court. Abusive parents are ipso facto unfit guardians.

mens rea – Guilty mind

When a crime is committed it is usually necessary to consider the intention of the criminal to determine the punishment. If the mens rea is innocent, even though a crime has been committed (actus reus) the punishment may be lessened based on the intent of the one committing the crime. However, this term is very subjective and is being replaced in some countries and legal systems. In general though, it has to do with the intent of the criminal.

nolle prosequi – To be unwilling to pursue

In essence it means that the case against the defendant is being dropped. A decision of nolle prosequi is usually entered after the decision has been made to prosecute in the first place.

pro bono publico – For the public good

This is usually shortened to just pro bono. It is used to mean professional work being volunteered on the behalf of someone who is unable to pay. It is considered a public service. Unlike simply volunteering for any task, this is when someone from a specific field volunteers their skills for the public good.

prima facie – By first instance or appearance

It is used to mean that upon first examination there seems to be sufficient evidence to begin to build a case. In legal matters it is the responsibility of one party to prove that there is a case against the second party.

quid pro quo – Something for something

This is where district attorneys or the state make deals with criminals to lessen their sentences based on exchange of information. When someone is arrested, but he is known to not be the only criminal in a matter, he may be able to exchange evidence quid pro quo for easier sentencing. Sometimes lawyers will exchange one advantage for another coming to an agreement that both parties will accept.