A Brief Guide to the Influence of Latin on English Law
Author: Eugene Lenehan
Younger readers might not recognise the famous line from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. It is probably the most quoted line from this classic British comedy, made in 1979.
Brian, an ordinary man from Nazareth, often mistaken as the Messiah, joins the “People’s Front of Judea” because he hates Romans. During a meeting of this revolutionary group, their leader (Reg) asks the group “What have the Romans ever done for us?”.
In considering the question posed by Reg, this article first reflects on the wider impact of the Romans, before focusing on how Latin, the language of ancient Rome, has influenced English law.
Impact of Roman Occupation
In the film, Reg asks his question during a meeting with his band of incompetent freedom fighters, who are unhappy with their enforced oppression and seek a return to life before the Romans. Although it was intended as a rhetorical question, Reg’s militant comrades soon realise that upon reflection the Roman invasion had provided many benefits. In a comedic fashion the list goes on, with Reg ultimately saying “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health … what have the Romans ever done for us?“. (A clip of this scene can be viewed at Monty Python: What have the Romans ever done for us? – YouTube).
Although the film is a comedy, it makes a valid point about how the Romans improved the lives of the peoples they conquered. Britain was one of many countries that was transformed and modernised by Roman occupation. In fact, Britain may not have been such a force in the Middle Ages without prior Roman influence.
Roman inventions that could be added to Reg’s above list include as follows:
- A postal service. The first postal and courier service was developed during Emperor Augustus’s reign. This was a state run service that took communications from one official to another across the Roman Empire.
- Books. Romans are credited with the invention of bound books. The Roman ‘codex’ is considered the very first of the modern-day bound book. Instead of being made from sheets of paper, it used sheets of vellum or papyrus. Its forerunner was the scroll, which was unrolled as you read.
- Newspapers. Romans were the first to distribute a form of daily news to citizens. Handwritten sheets were publicly displayed in Rome, with various news items including political developments, military updates and details about scandals. The Romans also published details of what happened in the senate.
- Currency. Although some tribes in England produced coins before the Romans arrived, they were not used as currency to purchase things. The Romans brought their own global currency. A denarius coin, minted in Rome, could be spent in Britain and elsewhere across its Empire.
- Calendar. The Julian calendar was the first to contain 365 days, along with a leap year every four years. It is the source of the Gregorian calendar used today.
- Social care. The Romans introduced laws that provided money to help feed and educate orphans and poor children.
- Roman Law: As the Roman Empire grew, their law developed to protect its citizens. Roman law and their legal systems allowed wrongs to be redressed and rights to be upheld. The Romans endeavoured to use precise and exact legal terminology, which helped avoid ambiguity. The influence of Roman Law can still be seen today, with nearly all the civil codes of Europe and America inspired by the Roman Law.
Architecture and Construction
The Romans constructed large towns and demonstrated great engineering feats, including constructing impressive buildings, roads, bridges, aqueducts and sanitation systems.
Examples of ways in which the Romans influenced architecture and construction include as follows:
- Arches and Domes: Although Romans did not invent the arch, they did develop the architectural arch to allow them to build large buildings, bridges and superior aqueducts. The spread of the Roman arch and its relation, the dome, which used similar principles of circular geometry to cover large areas with no internal support, have had an enduring impact on architecture throughout the world.
- Concrete: Romans were the first ones to use concrete in a widespread manner. The Pantheon, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum are all examples of buildings that were built by the Romans using a form of concrete. They developed a mixture of volcanic ash (known as ‘pozzolana’), lime and seawater, obviously doing something right, as many of their structures remain standing today. Compared to other building materials, the strength, flexibility and convenience of concrete made arches, vaults and domes much easier to build. Our word ‘concrete’ comes from the Latin ‘concretus’, meaning ‘compact’.
- Roads: The Romans are perhaps best known for their long-lasting roads. Britain had no proper roads before the Romans arrived, there were just muddy tracks. The Romans built over 10,000 miles of new roads across the country. Roman roads were slightly higher in the middle, to help the rainwater drain off into ditches made either side of the road.
- Aqueducts: Aqueducts were long channels built to carry water into the cities. The whole process needed no external energy, as it was accomplished by the use of gravity alone. The water was carried into cities and transformed into a network. It was used for drinking water, public baths, sewers and private villas. It was generally carried to a public fountain where people would use buckets collect water. Roman plumbing became so advanced that many of the large wealthy houses had running water. The intricate system that served Rome remains a major engineering accomplishment, involving 11 aqueducts that brought water to Rome from as far away as 92 km (57 miles).
- Bridges: The invention and widespread use of aqueducts could not have occurred without the construction of bridges. The Romans used stone and concrete to build their bridges, incorporating arches as the basic architectural feature to give them strength.
- Plumbing: Ancient Rome used lead plumbing to connect its vast population to a steady water supply brought in through aqueducts and flushing waste out through sewers. Did you know that ‘plumbing’ is called this because the Romans made their pipes out of lead, the Latin for which is ‘plumbum’?
- Sewers: A waste disposal system was not a new invention, but the Romans greatly improved how things were done. Rome had an extensive network of sewers and drainage, connected to most houses in the city. As early as the sixth century BC, the city of Rome had the ‘Cloaca Maxima’, otherwise known as the ‘Great Sewer’ of central Rome. It remains one of the oldest surviving structures in Rome’s history. Although it is not as glamorous as the Pantheon and Colosseum, many consider it to be a more important feat of engineering.
- Hydraulics: The Romans were the first civilisation to really harness the power of water in construction and engineering. Hydraulic mining was widely used to pave the way for aqueduct systems. One of the best examples of Roman hydraulics can be seen in Britain at sites like Dolaucothi in Wales, where gold was mined.
- Central Heating: The Romans invented a central heating (Hypocaust) system, distributing heat from an underground fire throughout a space beneath the floor, which was elevated by a series of concrete pillars.
Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire. As the Romans conquered large parts of Europe, Latin unsurprisingly became the most common language, similar to how English is today.
Latin is an incredibly complex language. Nearly every word is potentially adjusted based on tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, gender and mood. Wikipedia explains as follows:
“Latin is a highly inflected language, with three distinct genders, six or seven noun cases, five declensions, four verb conjugations, six tenses, three persons, three moods, two voices, two or three aspects, and two numbers. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.”.
In Life of Brian, Monty Python touches upon the complexities of Latin, when Brian (played by Graham Chapman) is caught writing graffiti on palace walls. In what might resemble a typical school Latin lesson, the exasperated Roman Centurion (played by John Cleese) ridicules Brian for incorrectly conjugating his Latin verbs! As the comical scene unfolds, the Centurion corrects Brian’s massacre of the language and then commands him to write the correct phrase 100 times.
The Romans conquered Britain in AD 43, remaining in occupation until AD 410. Given that the Roman Empire was a major power in Britain, Latin became the language of the elite, especially in the south and east. As Latin was the language of the new ruling power, it became the language of:
- government / administration
- the judiciary / legislation
- the military.
Hence, for nearly four centuries the Romans played an important part in British history. During this time, Latin inevitably influenced the development of the English language, especially in the areas of law, medicine and administration / government.
When the Romans left Britain, the significance of Latin continued. This was in part due to the arrival of Catholicism in AD 597, following a mission from Pope Gregory, to convert Britain’s Anglo-Saxons. Latin was the universal language of the church so, as Christianity spread, Latin continued to influence the English language. The Roman Catholic Church soon became the dominant religion in Britain. Until Henry VIII founded the Church of England in 1533, England was a Catholic nation. During this time, the Catholic mass was conducted in Latin. Consequently, many Latin words and phrases are still connected with matters of the church and clergy.
Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Anglo-Norman French became the ‘official’ language of England. However, Latin was still a spoken language and until at least 1300, it was the language of formal records and statutes.
For many centuries lawyers used a mixture of Latin, French and English. Not much changed until the Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730, when Latin was replaced by English, making it the obligatory language for use in the courts of England. However, lawyers revolted against this, and Lord Raymond warned that if the traditional language of the law were abandoned, all precision would be lost. As a result, Parliament compromised and allowed partial usage of technical words. The use of Latin also continued in various other spheres. For example, Latin remained the language of the Catholic church, with mass continuing to be said in Latin until the 1960s, when Pope John XXIII modernized the church.
Latin continued to be the language for educated people to converse with one another until at least the 1700s. For example, Isaac Newton’s famous theories were written in Latin, in his book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), published in 1687. This book established classical mechanics. The vocabulary of the medical profession is largely built on Latin foundation e.g. the words naming body parts and organs (Anatomy) is in Latin.
Up to the mid-20th century, learning Latin was often considered essential for anybody who wanted to attain a high level of education. Lawyers continued to use Latin terms because it was convenient. Some Latin terms have been given judicial or statutory meanings and have become well-recognised ‘terms of art’. Some lawyers also contend that Latin is more precise than English.
Because of Britain’s complex history, modern legal terminology contains a mixture of Old English, Latin and French terms. For example, we write a Last Will (Old English) and Testament (from the Latin ‘testamentum’).
Many Latin words are found in the English dictionary. Examples of familiar Latin words and phrases include agenda, alibi, alter ego, bona fide, caveat, circa, compos mentis, contra, curriculum vitae, dominium, in situ, inter alia, interim, modus operandi, nil, per capita, post-mortem, pro-bono, pro-forma, pro-rata, quid pro quo, rigor mortis, status quo, ultra, verbatim, versus, veto and vice versa.
Many other words are derived from Latin. For example:
- ‘malpractice’ comes from the Latin ‘mala praxis’.
- ‘facsimile’ comes from two Latin words: ‘fac’ meaning “make” and ‘simile’ meaning “similar”.
- ‘pending’ comes from the Latin ‘pendens’.
Indeed, several websites suggest that “About 80% of the English we speak can be traced back to Latin”.
An interesting example of a Latin word used in architecture / construction is ‘paternoster’, which means “Our Father” (i.e., the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer). In addition to ‘paternoster’ being a religious term, it is also the name given to a ‘hop-on’ lift invented in the 1860s. The paternoster lift is a passenger elevator which consists of a chain of open compartments that continuously move in a loop, one side going up, the other down. There are no doors to the compartments, with passengers stepping on and off any floor they like. This transport device was given the name ‘paternoster’ because the elevator is in the form of a loop and hence resembled rosary beads, used as an aid when saying prayers.
There are also some frequently used abbreviations that most people are unaware are Latin. For example:
- etc. stands for et cetera which means “and others”.
- e.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means roughly “for example”.
- i.e. stands for id est and means “that is”.
At the end of this article is a glossary of some Latin terms, especially those pertaining to the law.
Whilst in occupation, the Romans naturally applied their own laws, which were written and communicated in Latin. The continued historical importance of Roman law is reflected by the sustained use of Latin legal terminology and rules in the many legal systems influenced by it, including the common law system of England and Wales.
The law of ancient Rome was not only applicable during the existence of the Roman Empire (i.e., between 753 BC until its fall in the 5th century). The legal institutions created by the Romans continued to evolve and have influence on the laws long after the demise of the Roman Empire, including within countries that were never subject to Roman occupation.
Roman law continued to affect the development of law in most of Western civilisation. It forms the basis for the civil law codes of most mainland European countries and derivative systems elsewhere in the world. Roman law also remained in use in the Eastern (or Byzantine) Empire until 1453.
The Romans often created working rules of thumb, to guide their reasoning when deciding cases. These rules of thumb, intended to apply to specific legal situations but often expressed in very general terms, were gathered into collections and published, starting in the second century. In the sixth century Emperor Justinian ordered all existing Roman law to be compiled into one body. This compilation was produced between 533 and 535. Known collectively as the ‘Corpus Juris Civilis’, it represents the writings, actions and decisions of magistrates and legal scholars of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. It consisted of three different elements:
- the Digest (Digesta): This collected and summarised all of the classical jurists’ writings on law and justice.
- The Code (Codex) outlined the actual laws of the empire, citing imperial constitutions, legislation and pronouncements.
- The Institutes (Institutiones) were a smaller work that summarised the Digest, intended as a textbook for students of law.
A fourth work, the Novella (Novellae) was not a part of Justinian’s original project, but was created separately by legal scholars in 556 to update the Code with new laws created after 534.
Medieval specialists in the law of the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., canon law) also compiled their own collections of general rules that were drawn from Roman rules, especially the Digest.
Roman law has not shaped Britain’s legal systems to the degree that it has with the civil law systems on mainland Europe. However, British law (a common law system) has nevertheless been considerably influenced by Roman law. This influence can be seen right up to the court decisions in the 19th century, with judges borrowing rules and ideas directly from Roman law.
For many centuries Latin was the language of intellectuals and scholars and, because those people often became lawyers, they used Latin terms to describe legal matters. Although many Latin phrases have been discarded, many others remain prevalent within Britain’s legal systems. There are various reasons for this, including relating to tradition and elitism.
Legal documents were once drafted in Latin. Some Latin legal rules and concepts influenced English law and legal practice. Numerous Latin phrases have been tested in court and their meaning agreed and relied upon. It was generally easier to habitually continue to use phrases and maxims that everybody was familiar with, than to try and replace them with an English phrase.
Many of the principles of the English law of wills, contracts, easements and evidence come from aspects of Roman law. Restitutionary theories such as unjust enrichment (i.e., when one person is enriched at the expense of another in circumstances that the law sees as unjust) originated in Roman law, are now found in the laws of many nations.
Latin Legal Terms
There are many legal principles expressed in Latin that are a binding part of international and municipal law. These are known as ‘general principles of law’. They are principles that nearly every civilised system of law acknowledges. Three of the most commonly cited are:
- ‘stare decisis’ (the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent).
- ‘pacta sunt servanda’ (contracts must be respected).
- ‘res judicata’ (a claim cannot be tried twice).
Many legal terms and principles may be traced in one form or another, to terms and principles found in Roman law. Others were not created by the Romans but are expressed in Latin to show their permanence and antiquity. Some of them are principles inspired by Roman law, but they generally derive their authority from their binding universality.
Provided below is an explanation of the doctrines of ‘estoppel’ (which comes from a French word, but the principle has roots in Roman law) and ‘quantum meruit’. There then follows details of six legal ‘maxims’ or ‘canons’ of interpretation, which are guideposts that have been developed as helpful to legal reasoning and textual interpretation, such as in respect of contracts and statutes.
Estoppel is a well-known legal principle (but is not a canon of construction).
The noun form estoppel is based on the Old French ‘estoupail’, meaning stopper or bung. However, the doctrine of estoppel has deep roots in Roman law. It is based on the general principle that “no party may rely upon its own inconsistency to the detriment of another.” Estoppel prohibits a person from asserting something contrary to what is implied by a previous action or statement of that person.
Estoppel has been likened to the Latin maxim “venire contra factum proprium”, meaning “No one may set himself in contradiction to his own previous conduct”. Also defined by Wikipedia as “contradiction to one’s own previous conduct (which is detrimental for who exposes it by jeopardising his claims or entitling the adversary to one against him)”.
Quantum meruit means ‘the amount he deserves’ or ‘as much as he has earned’. In most cases it denotes a claim for a reasonable sum in respect of services supplied. The first uses of the term quantum meruit are not at all clear. While the phrase is certainly Latin in origin, no reference to the term has been found in works on Roman law.
A distinction can be made between a claim for contractual quantum meruit and a claim for restitutionary quantum meruit. A contractual quantum meruit claim is one in which pursuit of payment is made under a contract which does not include agreement in respect of the essential term of price. Whereas a restitutionary quantum meruit claim is one where a defendant has been unjustly enriched by receiving a benefit where there is no contractual agreement between the parties, or where a contract has been frustrated, avoided or it has become unenforceable.
Quantum meruit is often associated with letters of intent (For more information on letters of intent, please refer to our article Playing with Fire! – A Brief Guide to Letters of Intent).
In the case of British Steel Corporation v Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Co Ltd (1983) BLR 94, contract negotiations were progressing, but had not been finalised. In order to keep the project to schedule, the claimant carried out works at the defendant’s request. Goff J found that there was no contract but held that the claimant was entitled to payment, commenting as follows:
“Both parties confidently expected a formal contract to eventuate. In these circumstances, to expedite performance under that anticipated contract, one requested the other to commence the contract work, and the other complied with that request. If thereafter, as anticipated, a contract was entered into, the work done as requested will be treated as having been performed under that contract; if, contrary to their expectation, no contract was entered into, then the performance of the work is not referable to any contract the terms of which can be ascertained, and the law simply imposes an obligation on the party who made the request to pay a reasonable sum for such work as has been done pursuant to that request, such an obligation sounding in quasi contract or, as we now say, in restitution”.
In the case of ACT Construction Ltd v E Clarke & Son (Coaches) Ltd  EWCA Civ 972, the judge held that as neither the scope of work nor the price had been sufficiently defined, there could be no contract. On appeal, the Court of Appeal decided that there was ‘contractual quantum meruit’, whereby there was an agreement to carry out the works despite the fact that their scope and price had not been agreed.
In the case of Rob Purton (t/a Richwood Interiors) v Kilker Projects Ltd  EWHC 2624 (TCC) it was stated:
“where the works have in fact been carried out, the court may readily find that there was an intention to create legal relations; and if it is concluded that there was insufficient certainty about the agreement of a price or pricing mechanism, the court will readily infer that the person carrying out the works is entitled to be paid on a quantum meruit basis”.
In Bendetti v Sawaris  EWCA Civ 1427 the Court of Appeal said that when compensating the claimant for the value of the benefit received by the paying party, the court should look to the ‘market value’ of that benefit. The court also ruled that there was no distinction between an abandoned agreement and one that simply failed for some technical reason to become binding on the parties.
Canons of Construction
Judges can have a difficult task when interpreting the terms of a contract, or the provisions of a statute. Consequently, different cannons exist to aid a court in resolving a dispute between contracting parties.
Canons of Construction include the following Latin terms:
- Contra proferentem
- Ejusdem generis
- Expressio unius exclusio alterius
- Generalia non specialibus derogant
- Noscitur a sociis
- Reddendo singular singulis
The above canons are explained further below.
Many of the canons (such as such as ejusdem generis, expressio unius exclusio alterius and generalia non derogant specialibus) are said to be based on natural law or good sense. Halsbury’s Laws of England describes them in the following terms:
“The linguistic canons of construction reflect the nature and use of language generally, and do not depend on the legislative character of the enactment in question, nor indeed on its quality as a legal pronouncement. They are not confined to statutes, or even to the field of law, being based on the rules of logic, grammar, syntax and punctuation; and the use of language as a medium of communication generally”.
Contra proferentem, meaning “against the offeror”, is a well-established tool of contractual interpretation. A full version of the rule is “verba cartarum forties accipiuntur contra proferentem”, or “the words of deeds are to be taken more strongly against the one who put them forward”.
It is a legal doctrine in contract law which is referred to when there is an ambiguity in a document which all the other methods of construction have failed to resolve. The rule states that the ambiguous clause should be interpreted against the interests of the party who put forward the document. Hence, if there are two alternative meanings to the clause, the court may construe the words against the party that created / introduced the clause, giving effect to the meaning more favourable to the other party.
There has been a lot of case law involving contra proferentem and it is important to note that it will only ever be used if there is no better argument available to resolve the ambiguity in the contract.
Contra proferentem can be traced back to Roman Law. Examples of contra proferentem interpretation appear in the Roman Law Digest. For example, one such Digest entry instructs as follows:
“an obscure or ambiguous pact prejudices the seller and lessor in whose power it was that the terms be set out more clearly”.
In Tam Wing Chuen v. Bank of Credit and Commerce Hong Kong Ltd (in liquidation) , Lord Mustill said:
“[T]he basis of the contra proferentem principle is that the person who puts forward the wording of a proposed agreement may be assumed to have looked after his own interests, so that if words leave room for doubt about whether he is intended to have a particular benefit there is reason to suppose that he is not”.
The contra proferentem rule has been under sustained attack in recent years, as judges have restricted its application, especially in respect of modern commercial contract law. The above was cited in the Court of Appeal case of Lexi Holdings Plc v Stainforth  EWCA Civ 988, despite earlier criticism by Lord Hoffman in Investors Compensation Scheme v West Bromwich Building Society  UKHL 28.
In the Court of Appeal case of K/S Victoria Street v House of Fraser Ltd  EWCA Civ 904 (2011), Lord Neuberger explained:
“ “rules” of interpretation such as contra proferentem are rarely decisive as to the meaning of any provisions of a commercial contract. The words used, commercial sense, and the documentary and factual context, are, and should be, normally enough to determine the meaning of a contractual provision”
One of the problems with the contra proferentem rule is that it is itself ambiguous. One must ask, who is it that ‘puts forward’ the wording?. In ‘The Interpretation of Contracts’, (4th edition), Sir Kim Lewison suggests it might be taken to mean any of the following:
- the person who prepared the document as a whole.
- the person who prepared the particular clause.
- the person for whose benefit the clause operates.
However, in most cases / disputes, the answer to the above three question is the same.
In the Court of Appeal case of Persimmon Homes Limited and Others v Ove Arup & Partners Limited and another  EWCA Civ 373, Jackson LJ said that “in relation to commercial contracts, negotiated between parties of equal bargaining power, [the contra proferentem rule] now has a very limited role”, with Lord Neuberger MR, suggesting that “the words used, commercial sense, and the documentary and factual context, are, and should be, normally enough to determine the meaning of a contractual provision”.
Generalia non specialibus derogant
Where there is a conflict between general and specific provisions, this maxim provides that the specific provisions prevail i.e., the scope of the specific provision is not to be diminished by the terms of the general provision.
An example of the courts applying this maxim was seen in the case of Yarm Road Ltd and another v Hewden Tower Cranes Ltd  EWCA Civ 1127. Hewden Tower Cranes Limited had hired out a crane to Yarm Road Limited, to construct a building at Canary Wharf. The contract between Yarm and Hewden incorporated the Model Conditions of Plant Hire (“MCPH”) and Yarm’s standard terms and conditions. The crane collapsed and in the court proceedings the parties attempted to hold each other liable by relying upon different sub-sections of Clause 13 of the MCPH. Several preliminary issues relating to the construction of the MCPH and their relationship to Yarm’s standard terms and conditions were ordered to be tried.
It was argued that clause 11 (a general indemnity clause) of Yarm’s standard terms and conditions was an express condition of contract (printed on the back of the Order), whereas the MCPH were incorporated by reference. As such, it was argued that clause 11 should prevail over clause 13 of the MCPH. The Court of Appeal disagreed, explaining its decision as follows:
“whereas the clause 11 indemnity is perfectly general, clause 13 is dealing with the distribution of contractual responsibility in the specific context of the hiring of plant; and the rule, crisply expressed in the Latin maxim Generalia non specialibus derogant, is that the general is taken to give way to the specific”.
A further example of the courts applying Generalia non specialibus derogant can be seen in the case of Woodford Land Ltd V Persimmon Homes Ltd  EWHC 984 (Ch).
Ejusdem generis means “of the same class or nature”. The effect of this maxim is the meaning of general words is limited by the context in which they appeared. In common law jurisdictions (including England & Wales), ejusdem generis is widely applied in construing both statutes and contracts.
This rule applies when a contract / statute contains a list of items that are followed by a phrase along the lines of ‘other’. To understand what can be legitimately included in ‘other’, it is necessary to consider the context of the words included in the list. It is anticipated that the drafters of contracts and statutes might have missed things off the list, so use of ‘other’ allows things into the list provided they are in context.
For example, if a contract specification refers to “excavators, trucks, dumpers, forklifts, vans, lorries and other motorised vehicles”, “vehicles” is unlikely to be held to include airplanes or helicopters, since the list relates to land-based transport. Where particular words have a common characteristic any general words that follow should be construed as referring generally to that characteristic. No wider construction is allowed.
In Dean v Attorney v General of Queensland  QdR 391, the judge outlined the ‘ejusdem generis‘ or ‘class rule‘ as follows:
“For the ejusdem generis rule to apply, the specific words must constitute a category, class of genus; if they do constitute such a category, class or genus, then only things which belong to that category, class or genus fall within the general words”.
In Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse (1899), it was an offence under the Betting Act 1853 to “keep a house, office, room or other place for the purposes of betting”. The defendant had been using what was known as a ‘Tattersall’s ring’ for the purposes of betting. Tattersall’s ring was an outside area. The court found that ‘other place’ should be interpreted as an indoor place, because the other words in the list were all references to places inside. Given that the defendant had been operating outdoors, he was found not guilty.
In RJT Consulting Engineers V DM Engineering Northern Ireland Limited  BLR 217, DM (the mechanical and electrical subcontractors) employed RJT (a firm of engineers) to do design work. DM subsequently made allegations of professional negligence which were referred to adjudication. The Court of Appeal held that the adjudicator had no jurisdiction because the original agreement between DM and RJT was insufficiently recorded in writing. Ward LJ, who gave the leading judgement, said this about the interpretation of section 107 of the Construction Act:
“Section 107(2) gives three categories where the agreement is to be treated in writing. The first is where the agreement, whether or not it is signed by the parties, is made in writing. That must mean where the agreement is contained in a written document which stands as a record of the agreement and all that was contained in the agreement. The second category, an exchange of communications in writing, likewise is capable of containing all that needs to be known about the agreement. One is therefore led to believe by what used to be known as the ejusdem generis rule that the third category will be to the same effect namely that the evidence in writing is evidence of the whole agreement”.
Ejusdem generis remains alive and well in commercial courts, which have applied the principle across a broad array of contracts, often as a mechanism to reject a claimant’s overbroad interpretation of a contract provision’s general or catch-all terms.
Advantages of the ejusdem generis principle are:
- There is no requirement for the draughtsman to write an exhaustive list of everything that is included.
- The clause can cover circumstances which might not have been covered by the draughtsman.
A disadvantage of the ejusdem generis principle is that it is not always predictable what judges or adjudicators will consider to be in the same category as the specific words.
There can be exceptions to ejusdem generis. For example, words such as ‘whatsoever’ (E.g., a sentence ending “or any other cause whatsoever”) have been found to destroy the ejusdem generis rule. See for example Cosco Bulk carrier Co Ltd v M/V “Saldanha”  EWHC 1340. The effect of ejusdem generis can also be avoided by use of the words “without limitation” or “without limit” in the clause.
Another method of preventing the use of ejusdem generis is to include an appropriate interpretation clause in the contract. For example:
“In this Agreement the ejusdem generis rule shall not apply”.
If a party seeks to benefit from a clause (e.g., a limitation of liability) it would require a wider interpretation. Whereas, if a party wants to avoid the effect of the clause, it will require a narrower interpretation.
Expressio unius exclusio alterius
This Latin term means “express mention and implied exclusion”, or “the explicit mention of one thing is to exclude another”. This means if there is a closed list with no ‘other’ on the end, then it can only include these certain words and no others.
The common law uses this maxim in both statutory and contractual construction interpretation.
In London Borough of Barking and Dagenham v Terrapin Construction Limited  EWCA Civ 247 (CA) BLR 479, which involved A JCT With Contractors Design 1981 form of contract, the issue in dispute was whether any of the claims by Barking in relation to Terrapin’s design were subject to a defence of conclusive evidence as provided by clause 30.8.1. The court held that, as clause 18.104.22.168 expressly referred only to work and materials, it would be improper to imply that clause 22.214.171.124 also covered design. The court further held that, the fact that sub-clause 30.9 referred to “design” as an additional category of contractual requirement, separate from “works” and “materials”, clearly indicated that the reference in clause 126.96.36.199 was only to the latter two contractual requirements. The absence of “design” must have been intentional and reflected the intention of the parties.
It is an uncontroversial rule, given that it simply gives expression to a logical / grammatical understanding of a document’s plain words. The courts tend to treat it as a principle of logic rather than of law. One commentator explained as follows:
“That there is a substantial element of truth in [expressio unius est exclusio alterius] is obvious. It would find a place in the logic of the nursery. If I agree that my brother may play with my railway engine and my motor car, it is obvious that I have not given him permission to play with my model aeroplane”.
Noscitur a sociis
Noscitur a sociis means “a word may be known from accompanying words” or “it is known by its associates”. In essence, this implies that general words might be limited by the context in which they appear. Hence, if Noscitur a sociis is found to apply, its effect is to narrow the meaning of the wide general words.
Noscitur a sociis limits the meaning of a doubtful word, rather than expand it. In this respect, it is similar to ejusdem generis i.e., words that literally have a wide meaning when taken in isolation are treated as reduced in scope by the context in which they appear.
In Pengelly v. Bell Punch Co. Ltd  1 WLR 1055 the court had to decide whether a floor used for storage came under the Factories Act 1961, whereby “floors, steps, stairs, passageways and gangways” had to be kept free from obstruction. It was held that this did not apply to the parts of the floor that were used for storage, because all the other terms referred to parts of the floor that were used to work on, or travel on. A floor used exclusively for storage did not fall within that particular provision of the Act.
Noscitur a sociis cannot prevail in situations where it is clear the wider words have been deliberately used to make the scope of defined word correspondingly wider.
Reddendo singular singulis
Reddendo singula singulis implies that when a list of words has an adjusting stage toward the end, the expression refers just to the last.
An example of Reddendo singula singulis is quoted from Wharton’s Law Lexicon:
“If anyone shall draw or load any sword or gun, the word draw is applied to sword only and the word load to gun only, the former verb to former noun and latter to latter, because it is impossible to load a sword or to draw a gun, and so of other applications of different sets of words to one another.”
An example of reddendo singula singulis being utilised by the courts is the Indian case of Koteshwar Vittal Kamat v. K. Rangappa Baliga, AIR 1969 SC 504. It involved the construction of the Proviso to Article 304 of the Indian Constitution which reads:
“Provided that no bill or amendment for the purpose of clause (b), shall be introduced or moved in the legislature of a state without the previous sanction of the President“.
The Court held that the word “introduced” applies to “bill”, and “moved” applies to “amendment”.
An example of the English courts applying this maxim was seen in the House of Lords case of AIB Group (UK) Plc v Martin and Another  UKHL 63. Lord Roger said that this canon of construction could be applied to a document containing obligations on the part of two debtors. A mortgage deed in which A and B covenanted to pay “their debts” might be interpreted reddendo singula singulis as meaning that each of the debtors undertook to pay his own debts.
The court explained its decision as follows:
“This is a well-established principle of construction. It often, and perhaps usually, gives the words their most natural meaning. It parades under a Latin name rendendo singular singulus. This simply means that, when plurals are broken down, each singular component must be attributed to its respective singular and not to every other possible singular. It is a broad and general principle which departs from the literal and grammatical meaning and does not depend upon my minutiae of language”.
The ancient Romans arguably built the greatest empire in world history. The legacy of ancient Rome is still felt today, throughout most of the world, and especially in the fields of language, law, government, architecture and engineering.
Since the Romans occupied Britain, Latin has always thrived. This continued to be the case despite long periods where it had to compete with several other languages, including Celtic, Old English and Anglo-Norman French. Latin has continued to survive in numerous multilingual environments, whether that be during the Roman Empire, Renaissance Europe or the European Union and the modern world of globalisation.
Perhaps the setting where Latin continues to feature most is the law. Legal terms that have a Latin origin are so prevalent that virtually every legal practitioner makes use of them.
Latin is not the most interesting of subjects, so if you are seeking some light relief I strongly recommend watching ‘Life of Brian’, which I rate as Monty Python’s finest work. It is absolutely packed with gags and funny moments. It is too difficult to single out a favourite scene, but one worth watching is when the reluctant Brian finally addresses his growing band of disciples, trying to dissuade them from following him.
Brian pleads in frustration: “You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!”
The crowd responds in unison: “Yes! We’re all individuals!”
Brian adds: “You’re all different!”
Once again, the crowd responds in unity: “Yes! We’re all different!”
Then one quiet voice says: “I’m not!”.
Glossary of Latin Terminology
Below is a glossary of a selection of Latin words and phrases, many of which pertain to the law.
ab initio: From the beginning. Sometimes means breaking long-running contracts results in contracts having been broken from the start.
absoluta sententia expositore non indiget: An absolute judgment needs no expositor
actio in personam: Action against a person
actori incumbit onus probandi: The burden of proof lies on the plaintiff.
actus reus: The guilty, physical deed or act
acumen: Ability to make good judgments
ad absurdum: Irrational, absurd. To the point of preposterousness.
ad curiam: Before a court
ad damnum clause: To the damage (clause in a complaint stating monetary loss)
addenda: Things to be attached
ad hoc: For this purpose or occasion
ad hominem: Represents an argument made personally against an opponent, rather than a logical argument against an issue
ad idem: Towards the same (i.e., two or more parties agree)
ad infinitum: Forever
ad litem: Appointed for a legal action
ad infinitum: To infinity, without limit, non-terminating.
ad locum: At the place.
ad nauseam: To a repulsive extent
ad personam: Personal
ad rem: To the point, to the purpose. To the thing at hand
ad valorem: According to the value
advocatus diaboli: Devil’s advocate
affidavit: Has declared on oath (It is a sworn statement of fact that might be used to clear an innocent person)
a fortiori: With even stronger reason. Applies to a situation in which if one thing is true then it can be deduced that a second thing is even more certainly true.
aggregatio menium: Contractual meeting of the minds
alias: another, other, different
alias dictus: an assumed name
alibi: In another place, elsewhere
aliunde: From another place
Allegans contraria non est audiendus: One making contradictory statements is not to be heard
alter ego: The other self
altius non tollendi: A servitude preventing the servient owner from building beyond a certain height on his own ground
ambiguous: having a double meaning
amicus curiae: Friend of the court
amicus omnibus, amicus nemini: A friend to everyone is a friend to none
animo: With intention, design or will
animo furandi: With an intention of stealing.
animo testandi: With an intention of making a will.
animus: Mind or intention
anno domini: (Abbreviated to ‘AD’) Year of the lord
annus horribilis: A horrible year.
annus mirabilis: A fantastic year.
ante litem motam: Before the litigation is filed
a posteriori: Relating to or originating by reasoning from the observation of facts
apud acta: At the time of the proceedings
aqua pura: Pure water
arguendo: During an argument
avizandum: The time during which the court considers its judgment
bella gerant alii: Let wars be waged by others
beneficium: A privilege, benefit, or right
bona fide: Sincerely
bona fides: Good faith. A bona fide agreement is one entered genuinely without attempt to fraud. For more information on good faith, please refer to our article entitled Fussed about Trust? – A Brief Guide to Good Faith and NEC Clause 10).
bona vacantia: Vacant property
capias: Take, arrest
carpe diem: Seize the day
causa mortis: By reason of death
caveat: Beware, a warning
caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware
caveat lector: The reader should beware.
caveat venditor: The seller should beware.
certiorari: Send the pleadings up (Indicating a discretionary review process)
cestui que trust: Beneficiaries of a trust
ceteris paribus: Other things being equal
circa: In the area of, about, approximately
compos mentis: Of sound mind. Legally fit to conduct/defend proceedings.
conductio indebiti: An action for repayment of money paid in error
consensu: Unanimously or, by general consent
consensus ad idem: Agreement as to the same things
consortium: The conjugal fellowship of husband and wife
contra: Against, to the contrary
contra bonos mores: Contrary to good morals
corpus delicti: Body of offence. The facts of a wrongdoing
cum testamento annexo: With the will annexed
cui bono?: Who benefits, or who profits by it (e.g. motive for a crime).
cui malo?: Who suffers a disadvantage?
curriculum vitae: A summation of a person’s career
damnum: Damage, loss
damnum fatale: A loss due to an ‘act of God’ e.g. a storm or a flood
datum: Information or the thing given
de die in diem: From day to day
de facto: In fact, in deed, or actually
de futuro: In the future
de jure: Rightful, according to the law
de integro: As regards the whole
de lege ferenda: According to the law as it ought to be
de lege lata: According to the current law
de legibus: Of law
de minimis: Too minimal or unimportant to be considered. It means that the law does not concern itself with small or insignificant issues.
de novo: Anew or afresh
deo gratias: Give thanks to God.
deo volente: God willing
de son tort: Of his own wrong
dictum (plural: dicta): A judicial observation (often made during a judgment)
dictum meum pactum: My word is my oath.
dictum sapienti sat est: A word to the wise is satisfactory
doli incapax: Incapacity for guilt (usually due to young age).
duces tecum: Bring with you
dum spiro, spero: As long as I breathe, I hope
dura lex, sed lex: The law is hard / cruel, but it is the law
e converso: Conversely or on the other hand
ei incumbit probatio qui: The onus of proving a fact rests upon the man
ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat: The burden of the proof lies upon him who affirms, not he who denies
en banc: All judges present on the bench to hear a case
errata: A list of mistakes (in a book)
error, qui non resistitur approbatur: An error not resisted is approved
esto: Suppose it to be so (used to plead an alternative set of circumstances in a claim)
et al: And others
et alii: And others
et cetera: Other things of that type
et sequentia: And as follows
ex cathedra: With official authority
ex concessis: In view of what has already been accepted
ex curia: Out of court
ex delicto: Arising from a tort
ex gratia: Freely, as a matter of favour. An Ex-Gratia payment would be awarded without the acceptance of any liability or blame on the part of the giver or receiver.
ex lege: Arising from the law, as a matter of law
ex officio: From office, by virtue of one’s office
ex parte: By or for one party only. For proceedings, when the party against whom they are brought is not heard
ex post facto: After the fact. After the event. Usually used to describe a law which has retrospective effect.
faciendum: Something which is to be done
facto: In fact
factum: An act or deed
fiat: Let it be done. A short order that a thing be done
fides servanda est: Good faith is to be preserved
fiduciary: As something held in trust. (It could be a legal relationship of guardian ad litem for legal action).
fieri: To be made up, to become
flagrante delicto: In the very act of committing the crime
forum non conveniens: Power to decline jurisdiction over a case and have it tried elsewhere
fractionem diei non recipit lex: The law does not regard a fraction of a day
fraus est celare fraudem: It is a fraud to conceal a fraud
fraus est odiosa et non praesumenda: Fraud is odious and is not to be presumed
fraus et jus nunquam cohabitant: Fraud and justice never dwell together
gravis: Serious, of importance
habeas corpus: You have the body. A judge’s order (i.e. writ) to bring a person before the court to see whether he is justly imprisoned.
hoc indictum volo: I wish this to be unsaid. I withdraw the statement.
honorarium: Fee, gift or compensation from gratitude
hinc inde: On the one hand and on the other
ibid: In the same place. Used in text to refer to a page previously mentioned.
idem: The same person or thing. The same as above (id.)
ignorantia legis neminem excusat: Ignorance of the law excuses nobody
in camera: In chamber / in secret / closed session
in curia: In court
in dubio: On a doubtful point
in esse: In being, existence
in extenso: At full length
in facie curiae: In the presence of the court
infra: Beneath, below
in hoc statu: In this state of matters; at this stage of the proceedings
injuria: Wrongful act; injustice (also iniuria)
in limine: At the beginning
in loco parentis: In place of the parent
in modo probationis: In the way of proof
impotentia excusat legem: Impossibility is an excuse in the law
in omnibus: In every respect
in pari delicto: In equal fault
in personam: Against the person
in pleno: In full
in rem suam: To one’s own advantage
in situ: In its place
in solidum: For the whole sum
in re: In the matter
in rem: A proceeding against a thing
in situ: In its place
in specie: In the same, in similar form
inter alia: Among other things
inter amicos: Between friends
interim: Temporary, in the meanwhile
interlocutor: A decision or order or the court (as opposed to the final judgment or decree)
in terrorem: As a warning or deterrent
inter se: Among themselves
inter vivos: Between living persons
in toto: In the whole, completely
intra: Within, inside
intra vires: Within the power of the person or body exercising it.
ipsissima verba: the very words of a speaker
ipso facto: By virtue of that fact, by the very fact, thereby
ita est: So it is
ius: Right recognised by law (also jus)
ius ad rem: Right to a thing (personal right) (also jus ad rem)
ius in personam: Personal right (also jus in personam)
ius in rem: Right in a thing (real right) (also jus in rem)
ius naturale: Natural justice (alsojus naturale)
ius quaesitum tertio: Right acquired by a third party (in a contract between others)
judex est lex loquens: A judge is the law speaking
judex non potest esse testis in propira causa: A judge cannot be witness in his own cause.
judex non potest injuriam sibi datam punire: A judge cannon punish a wrong done to himself
judex non reddit plus quam quod petens ipse requirit: A judge does not give more than the plaintiff himself demands
judiciis posterioribus fides est adhibenda: Faith must be given to later decisions
jura naturae sunt immutabilia: The laws of nature are immutable
jura publica anteferenda privatis juribus: Public rights are to be preferred to private rights
jus: Law or right (also ius)
jus ad rem: A right to a thing (also ius ad rem)
jus commune: The common law or common right
jus dicere, non jus dare: To declare the law, not to make the law
jus est norma recti; et quicquid est contra normam recti est injuria: The law is a rule of right; and whatever is contrary to a rule of right is an injury
jus gentium: The law of nations or international law
jus naturale: Natural justice (also ius naturale)
jus naturale est quod apud omnes homines eandem habet potentiam: Natural right is that which has the same force among all men
jus in personam: personal right (also ius in personam)
jus quaesitum tertio: right acquired by a third party (in a contract between others) (also ius quaesitum tertio)
jus tertii: The right of a third party
labes realis: An inherent taint or defect in a title to property (also known as vitium reale)
leonina societa: A partnership in which one of the partners take all the gains, whereas the other bears all the losses
lex loci: The law of the place where the cause of action arose
lex loci contractus: The law of a place where a contract was made. In private international law it is the proper law by which to resolve contractual disputes
lex scripta: Written law
lis pendens: A pending legal action, or a formal notice of one
locus delicti: The place of the crime
locus: Place. The spot where an important event for the matter in hand has taken place
locus in quo: Scene of the event
locus standi: The right to be heard before a tribunal
mala fides: Bad faith, treacherously
mala in se: An act that is morally wrong, bad/evil in itself
mala praxis: Malpractice
mala prohibita: An act declared as criminal by statute
mala animo: Acting with evil intent
male appretiata: For the property of a deceased person, to be wrongly valued
mea culpa: My fault
medium concludendi: A ground of action
mens rea: Guilty mind. The intention to commit an offence whilst knowing it to be wrong.
modus: The narration of the facts and circumstances in a criminal charge
modus operandi: A method of operating
mora: The delay in asserting a claim, which, when coupled with prejudice to the defender, may prevent the pursuer from recovering
mortis causa: On account of death
mutatis mutandis: The necessary changes being made. Denotes that instructions should not be followed verbatim, but by amending where necessary.
ne bis in idem: A person may not be punished twice for the same thing
ne exeat: Let him not go out from the jurisdiction of the court
negotiorum gestor: A person that in an emergency steps in and acts for another who cannot act for himself
nolle prosequi: I do not wish to pursue. (A prosecutor is dropping all or part of an indictment.)
nolo contendere: I do not wish to contend. (A guilty plea, leaving open the option of denying alleged facts in later proceedings).
non compos mentis: Not of sound mind. (Not legally responsible)
non sequitur: It does not follow, an inconsistent statement
non valens agere: The unfitness of a person to act by reason of minority
nunc pro tunc: Now for then (Indicates action in the present that should have been taken before)
obiter dictum: A remark made by the court that is not central to a main issue in the case
occupatio: A mode of acquiring property by appropriating a thing
onus probandi: Burden of Proof
ope et concilio: By help and counsel
ope exceptionis: As a defence, by way of exception
pacta sunt servanda: Agreements must be followed
pactum illicitum: Unlawful contract
par delictum: Equal fault
pari delicto: In equal fault
pari passu: By equal progress
particeps criminis: Accomplice
penuria testium: Lack of witnesses
per annum: Annual, by the year
per capita: By the head
per contra: In opposition
per curiam: In the opinion of the court
per diem: By the day
per minas: By means of menaces or threats
per quod: by reason of which
per se: Taken alone, by itself
post factum: After the fact
post mortem: After death
pretium affectionis: A price or value placed upon a thing owing to its owner’s attachment to it
prima facie: At first sight, on the face of it (i.e., on the face of it).
prima impressionis: On first impression
probabilis causa litigandi: Substantial grounds for commencing legal action
probatio probata: A fact given in evidence which may not be contradicted
pro bono: For the good. Usually describes services performed free of charge
pro forma: As a matter of form, according to form
pro hac vice: For this occasion
pro rata: In proportion. A distribution according to the rate or proportion
pro re nata: As the occasion arises
pro se: Appearing for oneself
pro tanto: So far, to that extent
pro temper: For the time, temporarily
pro tempore: For the time being
publici juris: Of public right
quaere: Consider whether it is correct
quaeritur: The question is raised
quantum: How much, the amount
quantum meruit: For what it’s worth (a quantum meruit claim is a claim for a percentage of the contract price in direct proportion to the percentage of work done).
quasi: As if it were true (e.g., a quasi-contract is an agreement which will be dealt with as if it was a contract).
quid juris: What is the law?
quid pro quo: Something for something
quod erat demonstrandum: (Abbreviated to ‘QED’) Which was to be proved
quod erat faciendum: (Abbreviated to ‘QEF’) Which was to be done
quo vadis?: Where are you going?
quo warranto?: By what right or authority
re: In the matter of
res: Thing; the object of an action; matter, affair
res communes: Things in their nature incapable of appropriation, such as air and light
res gestae: An excited utterance
res ipsa loquitur: The thing speaks for itself
res iudicata: A question decided by competent legal proceedings, which cannot again be raised
res judicita: A thing or matter adjudged
res noviter veniens ad notitiam: Information newly discovered, sometimes justifying the admission of new matter in a case, or a new trial
res nullius: a thing which never had an owner or which had, but lost its owner
respondeat superior: Let the master answer
res publicae: Things in which the property resides in the state alone, such as rivers and highways
restitutio in integrum: Restoration to the original position or condition
res universitatis: Things belonging to a corporation, whose use is common to the members
rigor mortis: The stiffening of a body after death
secundum: According to
secus: The legal position is different
se defendendo: In self defence
sic: Used to indicate an error in original quoted material(used in quoted passages to indicate that an error has been intentionally reproduced)
si vis pacem, para bellum: if you want peace, prepare for war.
sine die: Indefinitely
sine qua non: An indispensable condition or part
socius criminis: Accomplice in crime
solatium: Damages given by way of reparation for injury to feelings
stare decisis: To stand by things decided. It is the doctrine of precedent.
status quo: Present state
stet: Do not delete, let it stand
sub judice: Before the judge/court. Under judicial consideration
sublata causa, tollitur effectus: The cause being removed, the effect ceases
sublato fundamento, cadit opus: The foundation being removed, the structure falls
sub modo: Within limits
sub nomine: Under the name of
subpoena: Under penalty. (A writ that orders a person to offer testimony or evidence or face punishment)
sub silentio: In silence
suggestio falsi: The suggestion of something which is untrue
sui generis: Unique
supra: Above, earlier
sui juris: Of one’s own right (Capable of managing one’s own affairs)
suppressio veri: The suppression of the truth
suppressio veri expressio falsi: A suppression of truth is equivalent to an expression of falsehood
talis qualis: Such as it is
tenere: To hold, to keep
terra firma: Solid ground.
tertius: Third party
transit terra cum onere: The land passes with its burden
uberrimae fidei: Utmost good faith. A party to certain types of contract must act in good faith and declare all relevant facts even if not asked for. Generally, refers to insurance contracts whereby insurers need to know all known risks. An exemption to the general rule of caveat emptor.
ubi eadem ratio ibi idem jus, et de similibus idem est judicium: When there is the same reason, then the law is the same, and the same judgment should be rendered as to similar things.
ubi jus ibi remedium est: Where there is a right there is a remedy.
ultimum refugium: Last resort
ultimus haeres: Last heir; the Crown inherits as last heir for want of other heirs
ultra vires: Without power
uno flatu: At the same moment. With one breath
ut poena ad paucos, metus ad omnes, perveniat: That punishment may come to a few, the fear of it should affect all
velle est posse: Where there is a will, there is a way.
veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered.
verba chartarum fortius accipiuntur contra preferentem: The words of deeds are accepted more strongly against the person offering them
verba debent intelligi cum effectu: Words ought to be understood with effect.
verba intentioni, non e contra, debent inservire: Words ought to serve the intention, not the reverse
verbatim: Exactly as said. Word by word
veto: I forbid
vice versa: The other way around
vigilantibus non dormientibus jura subveniunt: The laws serve the vigilant, not those who sleep
vir et uxor consentur in lege una persona: A husband and wife are regarded in law as one person
vis-a-vis: One who is face to face with another
vis et metus: Force and fear
vitium reale: An inherent taint or defect in a title to property (also known as labes realis)
voir dire: To speak the truth
volenti non fit injuria: An injury is not done to one consenting to it.
voluntas in delictis non exitus spectatur: In offences the intent and not the result is looked at