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Article by listed attorney: Fawzia Khan

There are a number of television series and movies which portrays the inner workings of legal and law enforcement industry. Shows such as the ever popular Suits, The Practice, Law and Order and many others often enthrall and entertain us. (Off course the truth is that it’s hardly ever a true reflection of what its like the real world). The use of Latin words and phrases can often be heard in many of these law focused television series. These Latin phrases, which are often used by lawyers as part of our everyday vocabulary, can sometimes appear to be confusing or mysterious. We help to demystify some of those perplexing Latin phrases.

 “Bona fide” Means acting in good faith. Conversely “mala fides” implies acting in bad faith.

“Sine die” literally means ‘without time”. It’s used when matters are adjourned at court and there is no specific date when the case will be back on the court roll.

“Habeas Corpus” an action to bring a person who has been unlawfully imprisoned or detained, before the courts.

“Audi Alteram Partem” – used in the law of evidence and means, “to hear both sides of the case”. This requires the judicial or presiding officer is compelled to give all parties in a dispute, the right to be heard.

“Per se”. Means "as such, or “clearly", or “a matter of law”.

“Modus operandi”- literally it means the method of operation.

“In camera”- when no spectators are allowed in a court room. If a minor is involved in a trial, it’s almost always held in camera.

Persona Non Grata: This is where a person who is not welcome in a foreign country.

Ad hoc: literally means for the purpose on hand and for nothing else.

De facto: means ‘in reality’ or “in fact”.

Curator Ad Litem – this is where a person is appointed by the court to protect the interests of a mentally challenged person or a minor is facing litigation.

Curator Bonis – this is person whom the court will appoint to actually look after the property of that mentally challenged person or minor.

Prima facie- means “on the face of it”. Usually means there’s a presumption which be considered true unless rebutted or disproved.

Quid pro quo- means an equal exchange or commonly “tit for tat”.

In flagrante delicto- means being caught whilst committing the crime or caught “red handed”.

Obiter dictum- this is where the judge makes an incidental remark which does not have a direct bearing on the case.

Sub judice- this is where a case is not finalized and is pending judgment. Often a party in a dispute will not respond to media questions if their case is sub judice.

Onus probandi- this means “the burden of proof”. In South Africa, the legal position is “he who alleges, must prove”. Thus the burden of proof falls on the accuser not the accused.


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