Why do some lawyers know Latin phrases?

Although Latin is a “dead language” today, it has influenced mathematics, anatomy, botany, zoology, astronomy, geology, pharmacy, politics and the law. Key South African concepts like democracy, citizenship, political debate, freedom and rights were first developed in Latin by the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Latin is the parent language for many other languages. For example, complex English words often derive from Latin, which means learning Latin could improve your English vocabulary.

Until about 30 years ago, Latin was a compulsory subject for all South African law students to obtain a Law degree, as Latin gives access and understanding to many useful universal legal concepts, works of ancient legal philosophers and resources which help develop South African Common Law. Some Latin phrases are still used by South African lawyers today in drafting documents. Examples include “inter alia”, “prima facie”, “pro bono”, “de facto”, “bona fide” and “ad hoc”.

Roman Law helped develop our Law and some important sections of Roman Law still exist in our Law today. In particular, aspects following the lex Aquilia which was a law from 287 BC, which provided for remedies and payment of compensation for suffering due to wrongful acts of violence, or damaged caused to goods or property, by another. As society modernised, the Aquilian law underwent many changes and extensions. It became intertwined with the various laws of countries exposed to it and Roman-Dutch Law developed. Due to historic reasons, Roman Dutch law was adopted and remains a source of our South African law, similar to English law, Indigenous laws, our Constitution and international laws.

Lex Aquilia still forms the basics of many summonses issued today to claim damages as result of the wrongful or negligent actions of others (ie delicts). Examples of type of cases it is used for include claiming of damages due to motor vehicle accidents or claiming damages for loss of production due to the wrongful or negligent actions of another.

Another Roman law crime and Latin phrase which is a part of South African Common Law is crimen injuria which refers to the unlawful and intentional harm to the dignity or good reputation of another which leads to damages. This crime stems from the Roman law’s action iniurirum, which has mostly been updated and substituted by the Bill of Rights included in our Constitution.

Use of Latin phrases are being phased out and the next generations of lawyers will possibly not know or use any Latin phrases in courts or legal correspondence. Current law students are taught to use plain language to make legal concepts more accessible. Also, South Africa is unique in the sense that we have 11 official languages. However, for reasons of efficiency, in September 2017, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, announced that English must be the only language used in court records. Witnesses may of course speak in their mother tongue in a court through translators.

Knowledge is power. Let’s appreciate and learn about the development and history of our Law and the languages we speak from all perspectives.


  1. Law of Delict – Neethling, Potgieter, Visser (2001)
  2. Essentialia van die Romeinse Reg – Ph J Thomas (1980)
  3. News24.com


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