Basic Legalese for Family Law
Posted on April 13, 2023 by Will Reingold
Sua sponte • inter alia • sine qua non • in pari materia • ex parte • stare decisis • in limine • ejusdem generis • per curiam •
ad litem • in loco parentis • pro se • de novo • sui generis • de jure • intestate • arguendo • ipso facto •
sub judice • in curia • pursuant to • witnesseth • inter vivos • nisi prius • expressio unius est exclusio alterius
Unless you are a law student or Latin aficionado, the foregoing list of legalese (i.e., legal jargon) probably does not mean much to you. In bygone eras, these types of phrases and antiquated adverbs like “heretofore” were more commonly employed in judicial writings. Thankfully, modern legal rhetoric has moved away from this practice in favor of plain English. Removing legalese keeps things simpler for the reader, who—whether it’s a judge or lawyer or client—does not want to expend time and energy looking up cessante ratione legis cessat ipsa lex (which as everyone knows translates to: “when the reason for a law ceases, so does the law itself”). This type of writing is notoriously difficult to read. And, arguably, legalese masks poor legal writing. The rule of thumb should always be to craft clear and concise prose. Legalese undercuts this precept.
But despite the move away from heavy reliance on Latin, certain legalese remains a bedrock of how lawyers and judges address certain legal issues. For a criminal case, it’s common to see the phrase actus reus (“guilty act”) because this is an essential element of any criminal act that the government must prove in order to convict a person of a crime. Likewise, in a contract dispute, a nonagenarian attorney may toss around the phrase caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”). As for family law, there are not too many examples of legalese, but, even still, they still pop up from time to time. Here are few examples legal jargon you may run into:
In loco parentis: “In the place of the parent.” It refers to a person who has put himself or herself in the situation of a lawful parent by assuming all obligations incident to the parental relation without going through the formalities of legal adoption and embodies the two ideas of assuming the status and discharging the duties of parenthood. For instance, a stepparent standing in loco parentis has a duty to support and educate a child to the same extent as does a natural parent. It’s also been said that schoolteachers, at least for purposes of discipline, stand in loco parentis, as also do college authorities.
Ex parte: “From one party.” Generally, this refers to direct communications made by or to a judge, during a proceeding, or regarding that proceeding, without notice to a party. Normally you always must give notice to the other party, and there are only a limited number of situations in which you can bring a motion ex parte. Emergency circumstances in family law, ones in which it is impracticable to give notice to the other side, may qualify for such a motion; e.g., motions for temporary restraining orders when personal safety is at risk; motions for orders where there is an immediate risk to child safety or there is a risk of child abduction; or motions in which a person’s basic financial survival is at risk (such as the ability to pay for food or utilities).
Pro se: “For himself.” This refers to a party who represents himself without an attorney. Such a person is said to be acting pro se or proceeding pro se. They may file an action or start off the case pro se and later decide to find an attorney to represent them. On paper, pro se litigants are held to the same standard as attorneys because they have chosen—for whatever reason—to engage in the judicial process without the assistance of counsel; however, it is common for judges to nevertheless cut unrepresented litigants some slack due to their lack of legal knowledge and experience.
Ad litem: “For the case.” A Guardian ad litem, commonly abbreviated “GAL,” is someone appointed by the court to represent the child’s interests in a legal matter. GALs have specific responsibilities and duties prescribed by the legislature. In dissolution proceedings, the GAL may function as an independent investigator and factfinder and may be directed to make a formal written report to the court. (See RCW 26.09.220). And, if parentage is in issue, any child of the parties may need to be represented by a GAL.
Comes now: This is the only non-Latin phrase on the list. It appears at the outset of a pleading, usually in all caps. It is meant to alert the court that a party is bringing a motion of some kind. Specifically, it lets the court know who is filing a motion, the petitioner or respondent, as well as what the motion is that is being filed. Beyond that, there is not much else to this silly phrase. A standard example (dripping with legal jargon) might be: “COMES NOW the petitioner, John Q. Public, who hereby submits this motion for default judgment.” Almost universally it is deemed an awkward phrase for any literate adult, yet it holds up as a kind of formal introduction.
In limine: “At the threshold.” Hopefully you will not encounter this phrase; if you do, it probably means your case is going to trial. Motions in limine are brought “at the threshold” of the trial, i.e., before opening statements commence. These motions ask the trial court to make an early ruling on a contested matter, which, in turn, helps to streamline the proceedings and avoid interruptions. For example, a wife may bring a motion in limine to exclude irrelevant evidence that the husband may want to show the court. For example, she might assert that this evidence is meant only to embarrass her and unnecessarily prolong the proceedings. If the judge grants her motion, the husband would be prohibited from introducing this evidence at trial.
The attorneys at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson PLLC strive to draft clear, concise, persuasive arguments. And while sometimes it’s impossible to avoid using legal jargon under the circumstances—quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus (“even good old Homer nods”)—we keep it to a minimum so that we may advance the best arguments on your behalf.