Wednesday 20 July 2011

Latin Terms Used in Shipping Law

Some might say that shipping law is one of the more old fashioned categories of civil law, especially in comparison with say Intellectual Property or Media law. And although the Woolf Reforms* signalled the death knell for much of the latin used in civil courts in England and Wales it is still common  to come across the use of legal latin in shipping law claims and cases.

Here is a list of some of the most common legal latin phrases and words and their meanings.

Latin - English - Meaning 

Ab Initio - From the outset - This is normally used to describe that something is invalid or unlawful from its beginning. For example if you entered an illegal contract and after some time operating under it someone breached it, you might say that the contract was invalid from the date of the breach whereas another party
might argue that the contract was void ab initio, in other words it was never effective.  

Bona Vacantia - Ownerless goods - Some legal systems, including the English legal system, have a concept of Bona Vacantia, to organise how to deal with property which is owned by no one. Examples of such property would be if someone set up a company and then suddenly moved to the Amazon (for a lfiestyle change). The company would eventually be dissolved for not trading and its assets, not being claimed by any shareholders, would be Bona Vacantia and go to the government (essentially). Another example is the assets of people who die with no known relatives and leaving no will.

De Minimus Non Curat Lex - The law does not concern itself with trifles - This is a very useful maxim. The point behind it is that the law is made for keeping order in society (criminal) and allowing confidence in personal and commercial contracts (that the Civil law will uphold them if broken). All this is for the greater good of everyone in the society. The law is not there to pick on tiny points and punish people or businesses for tiny technicalities which are of no interest to anyone. For example, if you walk on the grass where there is a sign that says 'do not walk on the grass', you may have technically broken an agreement with the landowner or caused criminal damage but neither the civil nor criminal courts will be interested in your actions as they are relatively insignificant. Another example, that I witnessed myself, was someone entering train station barriers to meet a friend on the platform. They were asked where they were going by an attendant on the platform and when they explained he told them the terms of their season ticket say they must only enter the area beyond the barriers for the purpose of travel. Whilst this may be true no court would be interested in such a minor indiscretion.

Nemo Dat Quod Non Habet - You cannot give what you do not have - English law recognises this concept, particularly in relation to the transfer of property. If I sold your car on Ebay, despite you being the owner clearly that would be a fraud so this subtle maxim would probably not be relevant. Where it is more relevant, for instance in a maritime law context, would be if your vessel goes on fire and, although put out, the repair cost will be more than the total insured value. The H&M insurers might agree to pay you the total insured value but in doing so obtain a proprietary interest in the vessel (i.e. a right to sell the fire damaged vessel and offset the proceeds, say £ 10,000 against their payout). If you then accept their cheque and then sell the wreck to a hobbyist boat restorer friend for £ 1, say, then the court could invaludate this sale because you have given something (the proprietary interest in the vessel) that was not yours to give.

Res Judicata - A judged matter - This means that a claim has been dealt with already and cannot be reopened. For example if a Claimant sues someone and they agree to pay them compensation. They spend the compensation and then issue legal proceedings for compensation the defendant would please Res Judicata as a defence on the basis the matter had already been dealt with. Similarly if you are sued and win your case before the court, only to find the Claimant sueing you again for the same claim, you could please Res Judicata.

* The 1996 Woolf Reforms (implemented to civil law cases from 1999 onwards) were designed to make the civil court process in England and Wales more approacheble, cheaper, quicker and easier to understand. As a result they abolished the use of latin in civil cases. As they related to civil cases you will still find latin used in criminal law (Actus reus etc.).


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