Students who aspire to a career in criminal justice encounter Latin legal terms that go beyond the ones every detective show viewer already knows – alibi, for example – and a bit deeper into the legal realm.

For those entering a criminal justice degree program who are new to using Latin legal phrases, the following list includes 11 of the most frequently used phrases, their definition and how they are most frequently used. The definitions come from Law Teacher and Merriam-Webster.

Ad Hoc

Definition: For this purpose

If the current group cannot resolve an issue, then authorities create a special group to deal with the challenge. An example of this is the U.S. Congress creating an ad hoc committee to have hearings on a specific issue.

Ad Litem

Definition: For the lawsuit or action

A court will appoint an ad litem attorney to represent those with a legal interest in a case but who cannot represent themselves, such as children or incapacitated adults.


Definition: He pledged

An affidavit is a sworn statement that is filed with the court. For example, the written account of events from a law enforcement officer, witnesses or victims of a crime.

Bona Fide

Definition: Good faith

When someone makes an offer in good faith – without fraud or deceit – officials consider that bona fide. For example, a bona fide offer to buy a property.

De Facto

Definition: In reality

The term de facto refers to something that exists without a specific order or mandate to exist, such as a person acting as a de facto parent to a child or English becoming the de facto language in the United States.

Ex Parte

Definition: From one party

An ex parte decision by a judge is one made without all parties present. It also can refer to improper contact between one side with a judge or a party.

Habeas Corpus

Definition: Show me the body

Habeas corpus refers to several common-law writs issued to bring a party before a court or judge. The U.S. Constitution also provides citizens the right to file a writ of habeas corpus as protection against illegal imprisonment.

Per Diem

Definition: Per day

The term per diem occurs most frequently in relation to payment for services. For example, some contracts will include base pay plus per diem costs such as food and lodging.

Pro Bono

Definition: For the good

A pro bono attorney is one who does professional work “for the good of the public,” without pay.

Status Quo

Definition: The current state of affairs

The term status quo is used to describe how things are currently, typically in relation to someone either maintaining the status quo or challenging the status quo.


Definition: Under the penalty

A subpoena is a writ that commands a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure to appear.

These terms serve as just the tip of the Latin iceberg in the legal world, but they offer an introduction to those introducing themselves for the first time to the criminal justice system. For criminal justice students, it’s a list that will only grow over time.