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A lesson in “Legalese” – the foreign language of lawyers

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A lesson in “Legalese” – the foreign language of lawyers

‘Ex Parte’? ‘Estoppel’? What does this mean? And why won’t Google give me a straight answer?

Nearly two-thousand years ago, Roman Britain adopted the tradition of incorporating Latin terms and phrases into legal documents and scripts. Whilst plain language has since moved on, the expression of lawyers has not come quite so far. To the untrained eye, many legal documents and publications might carry a remarkable resemblance to Shakespeare – employing peculiar words and phrases that even some dictionaries have retired.

Luckily, there’s no need to fetch the high-school textbooks – we’ve got your first lesson covered. Below is an insight into the meaning behind some of the most common (yet obscure) ‘legalese’ terms you might encounter.


Estoppel (noun)

It usually takes four years of law school to truly understand what this word means – but you can trust that won’t stop lawyers from using it. Estoppel is legal principle that prevents a person from asserting a right or making an argument that contradicts something they have previously said or agreed to by law – much like how you can’t break a pinky-promise. If you try, you’ll be estopped, and ‘fingers crossed’ is not an excuse. 


Ex parte (adjective)

Relax – this has nothing to do with your ex. Nor does it have anything to do with a celebration – unless being the only attendee is your style (no judgment). If something Is ‘ex parte’, it means it only involves one of the sides in a legal matter – so a 50/50 chance you’re off the hook! Maybe a little party wouldn’t go so astray…


Prima facie (adjective/adverb)

You know the saying, ‘never judge a book by its cover’? Forget it. Judging the cover is exactly what we’re doing here. ‘Prima facie’ Is Latin for ‘on the face of it’. If something is ‘prima facie’, this means it can be accepted as fact until it is proven otherwise. For example: “Prima facie, lawyers aren’t funny.” Unfortunately, this article is weak evidence to the contrary.


Force Majeure (noun)

‘Force majeure’ refers to unforeseeable or uncontrollable circumstances or events, which may allow parties to be relieved from carrying out their duties under an agreement. A wise guy may argue that life itself is uncontrollable, but don’t go burning bridges. This is no ‘undo’ button. The definition of a ‘force majeure’ is held to a higher standard than the kids on ‘Dance Moms’ – even the event of a global pandemic might not cut it.

All attempted jokes aside, whilst the technical language of lawyers may appear outdated on the surface, it is not kept without cause. The terminology saves time when working on familiar transactions and works as a mechanism for lawyers to remain consistent with precedent law, improving the predictability of situations. In turn, it serves the important purpose of bringing clients more agile and efficient solutions.

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Co-written by Sophie Gruyich, Chelsea Fennell & Maddy Ransley.

The information contained in this blog is general in nature and should not be considered to be legal, tax, accounting, consulting or any other professional advice. In all cases, you should consult with a professional advisor familiar with your factual situation for advice concerning specific matters before making any decisions. By reading this blog, you confirm your understanding of this disclaimer.

Tammi McDermott
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