Translating Latin Legal Terms: Amicus Curiae, ex post Facto, and In Loco Parentis
written by: John Garger
• edited by: Wendy Finn
• updated: 1/5/2012
As a dead language, Latin still lives on in the many terms and phrases used in law. Translating them is a unique lesson in grammar for the Latin student. This article focuses on the Latin phrases amicus curiae, ex post facto, and in loco parentis.
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The Impact of Latin on English
During the medieval and renaissance periods of Latin history, Latin had an important impact on English through the introduction of thousands of words into the English lexicon. The result is a misnomer that English is a derivative language of Latin when in fact English has never betrayed its Germanic roots in grammar and structure.
As the official language of science, law, and education throughout Western Europe in previous centuries, Latin’s impact on us today is still quite considerable in spite of it not having been spoken natively by a people for centuries.
Law students throughout the Western world are inundated with hundreds of Latin phrases that describe certain legal situations, conditions, and states of being. Three such Latin phrases are discussed here as they pertain to common legal circumstances. Translating these phrases is an exercise for Latin students to familiarize themselves with a different form of Latin, a more practical Latin that exhibits a number of common Latin constructions.
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"Amicus curiae" is literally translated into English as "a friend of the court." The word "friend" in Latin is a noun typically learned at an early stage in most Latin programs. Since second declension nouns are normally presented within the first few chapters of a Latin textbook, "amicus" is a common word. Here, "amicus" is simply the nominative masculine form of the word indicating that it is the subject of the phrase.
The word "curiae" did not mean in Classical Latin what it implied in later centuries. The "curia" was a division of the Roman Patricians, the affluent class of people in Rome. Only later did its meaning come to be known as "court" in distant reference to the place where the Roman Senate met to conduct Roman affairs. In its genitive form, "curiae" can literally be translated as "of the court." Hence, the full translation of the phrase is "friend of the court."
An amicus curiae, in the legal sense, is literally a friend of the court; a person not a party to a case, but someone willing to give expert testimony, information, or advice to assist the court in making a fair judgment. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) sharing expert knowledge in an accounting fraud case would be appropriately named "amicus curiae."
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Ex Post Facto
Ex post facto is most commonly used to refer to laws that retroactively change the legal status of crimes committed before the laws were officially put into place. Consequently, behaviors that were legal at the time they were exhibited may become illegal after an ex post facto law is enacted. Generally, ex post facto laws are considered a violation of people’s rights in democratic societies.
"Facto" is the ablative form of the Latin word "factum," a neuter noun meaning "deed," "act," or "achievement." As its English derivative suggests in conjunction with its Classical Latin translation, "factum" is appropriately taken to mean "fact." In its ablative form, "factum" coupled with the "ex" forms the ablative of place from which and describes something’s original location. The "post" portion of the phrase is an adverb also found in English meaning "after." Taken all together, the phrase "ex post facto" may then be appropriately translated as "from after the fact."
Many legal professionals will tell you that this phrase means "after the fact." Although similar in meaning, the clever Latin student knows that the word "post" cannot be simply ignored. This phrase is a good example where our need to shorten phrases to their barest minimums conflicts with the correct translation and application of good Latin grammar.
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In Loco Parentis
From British Common Law, the phrase "in loco parentis" is taken to mean "in the place of parents" or "instead of parents." It denotes the acts of a person or entity (such as an organization or governmental agency) to take on responsibilities normally performed by a parent. For example, a state may be acting "in loco parentis" for a recently orphaned infant.
The "in loco" part of the phrase is a good example of the ablative of locus which indicates from where something derives. Therefore, "in loco" can be appropriately translated as "in place [of]." The "parentis" part of the phrase derives from the masculine or feminine third-declension noun "parens" of which the genitive form is "parentis." This noun may be masculine or feminine depending on its contextual use. As the genitive form of the word, "parentis" implies a relationship of possession. Therefore, the complete phrase "in loco parentis" can be appropriately translated as "in place of a parent." The plural form (in place of parents) would be "in loco parentum."
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Translating these commonly foundphrases is a wonderful method of learning Latin from a more practical standpoint. Many Latin phrases make use of similar but distinct grammatical constructions. Translating the ablatives of means, manner, time, place where, place from which, and others in rapid succession provides an exercise few Latin programs offer.