Español Jurídico: Ley penal en blanco

CRIMINAL L

Ley penal en blanco is one of those impossible-to-translate expressions that is not a patently civil law term but rather, like much of Spanish criminal law terminology, was adopted from the German. The first problem is to understand the concept, and then to find an appropriate rendering. As defined in Aranzadi’s Diccionario Jurídico,* “las leyes o normas penales en blanco se caracterizan porque en ellas la disposición penal se limita a fijar taxativamente la consecuencia jurídica, esto es, la pena, pero no define exhaustivamente el supuesto de hecho del delito, sino que remite a otra norma del Derecho Civil, Mercantil, Administrativo, Social o Comunitario, de suerte que es esta última la que fija o describe la conducta sancionada por la norma penal.”

Thus, simply stated, a ley penal en blanco is a penal law that provides the penalty for a criminal offense, while the offense itself is defined in another law or regulation. Article 316 of the Spanish Criminal Code provides a clear example of a ley penal en blanco:

Los que con infracción de las normas de prevención de riesgos laborales y estando legalmente obligados, no faciliten los medios necesarios para que los trabajadores desempeñen su actividad con las medidas de seguridad e higiene adecuadas, de forma que pongan así en peligro grave su vida, salud o integridad física, serán castigados con las penas de prisión de seis meses a tres años y multa de seis a doce meses.

Here the pena (sentence) is clearly stipulated (prisión de seis meses a tres años y multa de seis a doce meses), but the tipo penal (definition of the unlawful act) is left “blank” to be “filled in” by another law or regulation, in this case, in the normas de prevención de riesgos.

The original German term is Blankettstrafgesetz:

La expresión “ley penal en blanco” (que corresponde con la traducción del término “Blanketstrafgesetz”) se debe a Binding. Este autor la propuso por primera vez en 1872… para hacer referencia a un particular grupo de normas que recogía el Código Penal en las que, aunque se preveía la sanción a aplicar, se asignaba a supuestos de infracción de disposiciones establecidas por autoridades administrativas.**

In his “Principles of German Criminal Law,” Michael Bohlander defines leyes en blanco (Blankettgesetze, or Blankettnorms) as acts of Parliament “that do not contain (all) the elements of the offense, but refer to other legislation for that purpose.”*** But Bohlander translates these terms as “blanket acts,” a translation that I believe those unfamiliar with the concept might misunderstand as referring to a “blanket (or) umbrella law” designed to address a broad range of offenses. Likewise, the literal rendering “criminal law in blank” appearing in several sources obviously fails to convey the true meaning of the expression.

Since there is really no common law counterpart for ley (or) norma penal en blanco, I am offering below three possible “definitional translations,” adapted from explanations appearing in several Spanish criminal law sources:

• criminal norm/law that defines the punishment but that refers to another non-penal law to define the offense (ley penal que establece la pena pero que remite a otra ley no penal para definir el delito)

• criminal norm in which the criminal conduct is defined by reference to another non-penal norm (norma penal cuyo supuesto de hecho se configure por remisión de una norma de carácter no penal)

• norm that contains the punishment but does not describe the prohibited or sanctioned conduct (norma que contiene la sanción pero no describe las acciones prohibidas o sancionadas)

*Juan Manuel Fernández Martínez, Coord. Diccionario Jurídico. Cizur Menor (Navarra): Thompson-Aranzadi, 2004.

**Antonio Doval País. Posibilidades y límites para la formulación de las normas penales. El caso de las leyes en blanco. Valencia: Tirant lo Blanch, 1999, p. 95.

***Michael Bohlander. Principles of German Criminal Law. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009, p. 11.

For further reading:

Francisco Muñoz Conde and Mercedes García Arán. Derecho Penal-Parte General. Valencia: Tirant lo Blanch, 1998 (there are later editions), pp. 40-43; 122-126.

José Luis Díez Ripollés. Derecho Penal Español-Parte General en Esquemas. Valencia: Tirant lo Blanch, 2007, pp. 57-58; 66.

Confusing Terms: fusión is not always a “merger”

Legal Synonyms,Confusing Terms(what's the difference between..._)
Many confusing terms in legal Spanish and English are simply legal synonyms that are not always clearly distinguishable, often making it necessary to learn how each one is used in a specific context or in “set” phrases (frases hechas). Some may be interchangeable; others are limited to use in specific contexts. Those highlighted in this blog are ones that I have seen confused in translation or that my students and lawyer clients have found most difficult to distinguish.

fusión por absorción; fusión por creación

merger; consolidation; concentration

In English the term “merger” is often used informally and generically to refer to any type of amalgamation of business entities (fusión de sociedades). But in its strictest sense merger more properly denotes “the absorption of one organization (that ceases to exist) into another that retains its own name and acquires the assets and liabilities of the former.* In Spain and in other Spanish-speaking jurisdictions this is known as fusión por absorción, and the surviving company is referred to as the sociedad absorbente, while the merged (or) “absorbed” company that ceases to exist is known as the sociedad absorbida.

In contrast, in what is properly called a “consolidation” there is a “unification of two or more corporations or other organizations by dissolving the existing ones and creating a single new corporation or organization.”* In Spanish this is known as fusión por creación de sociedad nueva. Thus, although fusión and “merger” are often used generically to denote both concepts, fusión por absorción is “merger,” while fusión por creación (de sociedad nueva) is more properly “consolidation.”

In other respects, especially in EU competition law, mergers are typically referred to as “concentrations” (concentraciones), and “merger control” is rendered as control de concentraciones or control de operaciones de concentración.

Vocabulary recap:

fusión de sociedades—merger (generic)
fusión por absorción—merger
sociedad absorbente—surviving entity (company, corporation, etc.)
sociedad absorbida—merged entity (company, corporation, etc.)
fusion por creación (de sociedad nueva)—consolidation
concentración—merger
control de concentraciones; control de operaciones de concentración–merger control

*Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed.

Expressing Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms: derechos reales

ExpressingCivil LawConcepts

Derechos reales (often called “real rights” en English-speaking civil law jurisdictions) are “rights (or interests) in property” (“property rights;” “rights in rem”) and the expression has sometimes been mistranslated as “real property rights.” However, derechos reales may actually denote a series of rights or interests in both bienes inmuebles (“real property,” “real estate” or “realty,” sometimes referred to as “immovables”) and bienes muebles (“personal property,” “personalty,” or “chattels”, sometimes referred to as “movables”). Although civil law textbooks may group them differently, traditional classifications of derechos reales include the following:

1) derecho real provisional—temporary rights in property, i.e., posesión (“possession”)

2) derecho real pleno—full rights in property, i.e., dominio (or) propiedad (“ownership”); and

3) derechos reales limitados—limited rights in property, which are subdivided into three large categories:

3.1) derechos reales de goce—rights to the enjoyment of property including usufructo, uso, habitación, servidumbres, censos, enfiteusis, and superficie;

3.2) derechos reales de garantía—security interests in property, including prenda, hipoteca, anticresis, prenda sin desplazamiento de la posesión and hipoteca mobiliaria; and

3.3) derechos de adquisición preferente—preferential rights in the acquisition of property, including tanteo, retracto and opción de compra.

In future posts I will explore the terminology of several of these limited property rights in more detail, but for now here are some useful definitions for some of those that may be less well-known** with possible English translations and explanations.

derecho real de goce—enjoyment rights; rights of use and enjoyment; right to use and enjoy another’s property: facultad de uso de las cosas pertenecientes a otro; also called derecho real de disfrute, which implies the use and enjoyment of the proceeds (frutos) from the property

usufructo—right to use and reap the proceeds of another’s property, with the obligation to preserve its form and substance: derecho de usar y percibir los frutos de cosas ajenas, con la obligación de conservar su forma y sustancia; called “usufruct” in English-speaking civilian systems and often translated as “beneficial ownership,” usufructuario or “beneficial owner” denoting the beneficiary of a usufruct,  while the owner of the property given in usufruct is the nudo propietario (“naked owner”).

derecho real de uso—usage rights: derecho de usar una cosa ajena con el derecho a disfrute limitado a las necesidades del usuario y su familia (right to use another’s property with the right to proceeds from the property limited to covering the needs of the user and his family)

derecho real de habitación—dwelling rights; habitation rights; rights of habitation: derecho de ocupar en casa ajena las piezas necesarias para si mismo y las personas de su familia (right to occupy in another’s home the rooms necessary for oneself and one’s family; the beneficiary of dwelling rights is known as an habitacionista (“dwelling/habitation rightsholder”)

servidumbre—easement, also often called “servitude” in English-speaking civil law jurisdictions: gravamen impuesto sobre un inmueble en beneficio de otro perteneciente a distinto dueño (encumbrance imposed on one parcel of land benefiting the owner of another one)

censos—various types of ground rent or annuity rights arrangements: sujeción de un inmueble al pago de un canon o rédito anual en retribución de un capital en dinero o del dominio pleno o menos pleno que se transmite en los mismos bienes (burden on real property consisting of the payment of an annuity in exchange for a cash amount or for the transfer of ownership or lesser rights in that same property)

enfiteusis—emphyteusis, a type of ground rent arrangement, also called censo enfitéutico: cesión del dominio útil de una finca, con reserva del dominio directo y el derecho de recibir a cambio una pensión anual (grant of beneficial ownership in a parcel of land, reserving title to that property and the right to receive an annuity in exchange)

derecho real de superficie—surface rights; building (or) planting rights: facultad de construir o plantar en suelo ajeno por un determinado período de tiempo, adquiriendo la propiedad de lo construido o plantado (right to build or cultivate on another’s land for a given term, acquiring ownership of the building or crops)

derechos reales de garantía—security interests in property

prenda—pledge

hipoteca—mortgage

anticresis—antichresis: facultad del acreedor de ostentar el goce posesorio de un inmueble y de aplicar los frutos percibidos al pago de los intereses, o en su caso, al capital debido (creditor’s right to possession and enjoyment of an item of real property and to apply the proceeds therefrom to the payment of interest, or when warranted, to the capital owed him)

prenda sin desplazamiento de la posesión (often shortened to prenda sin desplazamiento)—nonpossessory pledge; (nonpossesory) security interest in personal property

hipoteca mobiliaria—chattel mortgage

derechos de adquisición preferente—preferential rights in the acquisition of property

tanteo—right of first refusal; first-refusal right; preferential purchase right: facultad de adquirir una cosa que va a ser enajenada a un tercero, por el mismo precio y en las mismas condiciones pactadas entre el vendedor y el tercero (right to purchase property that is going to be sold to a third party, at the same price and under the same conditions agreed between the seller and that third party)

retracto—right to set aside a sale; right to set aside/revoke/vacate a sale or other conveyance after its completion and acquire the item sold: facultad de adquirir una cosa cuando su propietario ya la ha enajenado a un tercero (right to acquire a property when it has already been sold to a third party)

opción de compra—purchase option

**The source of these definitions and a great place to learn more: Carlos Lasarte, Principios de Derecho Civil,” Vols. IV and V (Propiedad y derechos reales de goce; Derechos reales y Derecho hipotecario) Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2002 (there are several later editions!)

Expressing Spanish Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms

When translating a patently civil law term from Spanish into English it may be tempting to simply render it literally, but the result will often be meaningless to readers unfamiliar with civil law systems. An alternative is to seek an option in a reputable monolingual English dictionary that defines civil law terms. But caution should be used when consulting those sources, since often the definition provided will reflect the meaning of the term as used originally in Roman Law or in English-speaking civil law jurisdictions (such as Louisiana), rather than its current meaning in Spanish-speaking jurisdictions. Moreover, the target audience for the translation may not be familiar with the civil law concept in question, in English or in any language.

In future posts under “Expressing Spanish Civil Law Concepts in Common Law Terms” I would like to explore a series of patently civil law concepts while also discussing other elements peculiar to Spanish law that perhaps have no readily discernible counterparts in Anglo-American legal systems. It certainly won’t be a presentation of Spanish law per se, but rather an overview of some of the vocabulary that may initially puzzle translators and legal professionals working in the field.

To determine the concepts to be included, in addition to suggestions from my students, colleagues and lawyer clients, I have culled a series of Spanish civil law, business law, and civil and criminal procedure law school textbooks to isolate the terminology that I believe may be most foreign to those unfamiliar with civilian systems. The English translations I suggest should always be viewed as approximate “kindred concepts” that may be useful, but will rarely prove to be true equivalents. As underscored by N. Stephan Kinsella in his “Civil to Common Law Dictionary,”** civilian terms may be “correlated with common law concepts” and often have some “counterpart” in common law terminology, but true equivalents do not often exist.

When there is no apparent concise counterpart, a short definition or a descriptive rendering will sometimes have to do. It is often frustrating to discover that there may really be no short, snappy functional equivalent for a given concept that will fit nicely into a translation. But this is very often the case, and sometimes there is no other recourse but to offer a concise definition in the body of the text or in a footnote.

 

**N. Stephan Kinsella. “A Civil Law to Common Law Dictionary” Louisiana Law Review, Vol. 54 (1994) pp. 1265-1305.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268042593_A_Civil_Law_to_Common_Law_Dictionary

Confusing Terms: Removal of Judges

Many confusing terms in legal Spanish and legal English are simply legal synonyms that are not always clearly distinguishable, often making it necessary to learn how each one is used in a specific context or in “set” phrases (frases hechas). Some may be interchangeable; others are limited to use in specific contexts. Those highlighted in this blog are ones that I have seen confused in translation or that my students and lawyer clients have found most difficult to distinguish.

 abstención; recusación; inhibición; declinatoria; inhibitoria

These five terms all denote instances in which a judge may refrain from hearing a case (se aparta del caso). They are often confused in translation and are not interchangeable. Abstención and recusación describe instances in which a judge refrains (or is asked to refrain) from hearing a case due to a conflict of interest or for other legally-determined reasons. Inhibición, declinatoria and inhibitoria refer to circumstances in which a judge may refrain from hearing a case due to a lack of jurisdiction or improper venue.

A judge’s duty to withdraw from a case due to a conflict of interest or for other legally-established grounds (deber de abstención por causas establecidas legalmente) is the “duty to recuse himself.” When there are grounds for recusing themselves (causas de abstención), judges as well as court personnel, prosecutors and expert witnesses (funcionarios de la Administración de Justicia, fiscales y peritos) are obliged to recuse themselves (abstenerse) and withdraw from the case. If a judge does not recuse himself when deemed warranted, the parties and the public prosecutor (las partes y el Ministerio Fiscal) may likewise file a “motion to recuse” or “motion for recusal” (called incidente de recusación). Thus, in this context the verb abstenerse is “to recuse oneself”, while recusar is used when a third party recuses a judge or other official. In their noun forms abstención denotes a judge’s recusal of himself, while recusación is the recusal of a judge on the part of a third party.

In contrast to the above, even if he would incur no conflict of interest a judge may voluntarily “decline jurisdiction” (declararse incompetente, literally, “declare that he lacks jurisdiction”) if, according to the rules of procedure, he believes that another court has proper jurisdiction over the matter in dispute. In Spanish this “declining jurisdiction (in favor of another court)” is expressed as inhibirse (en favor de otro juzgado/tribunal), and in its noun form, inhibición denotes a judge’s voluntary “relinquishment of jurisdiction.”

In other respects, if a judge who lacks jurisdiction (juez incompetente) does not decline jurisdiction sua sponte (inhibirse de oficio), a party to the proceedings may challenge the court’s jurisdiction by filing one of two possible motions known respectively as declinatoria and inhibitoria. Both of these terms may be appropriately rendered as “motion challenging jurisdiction,” “motion to relinquish jurisdiction” or, under certain circumstances, “motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.” If the case specifically involves a lack of territorial jurisdiction (falta de competencia territorial), declinatoria and inhibitoria may also be translated as “motion alleging improper venue.”

The difference between declinatoria and inhibitoria lies with the court where the motion challenging jurisdiction is filed. Declinatoria is a motion filed with the court that allegedly lacks jurisdiction (tribunal incompetente), asking the judge to decline jurisdiction (inhibirse) in favor of another court. Inhibitoria is a motion filed with the court deemed to have jurisdiction or proper venue, asking that it declare itself the court of competent jurisdiction (que se declare competente) and to petition the court presently hearing the case to relinquish its jurisdiction (que se inhiba) and transfer the case to that court.

In summary, the above terms are all used in instances in which a judge may refrain from hearing a case. Abstención and recusación are used when the reasons for doing so involve a conflict of interest or other legal impediment, while inhibición, declinatoria and inhibitoria involve circumstances in which the court lacks jurisdiction to hear that case.

Multiple Meanings of condena

One of the major difficulties of learning legal language is that so many terms have one meaning in everyday usage, but may mean something radically different in legal contexts. And sometimes the same word may have several different legal meanings, depending on the practice area in which it is used. Linguists may describe such terms as “polysemous,” and they are certainly present in abundance in both legal Spanish and legal English. Under “Multiple Meanings” I offer a sampling of expressions that I believe are likely to give rise to miscues in legal translation. Logically, the focus is on usage in legal contexts, and their nonlegal meanings have generally been excluded.

 condena; condenar; condenado

In the terminology of criminal procedure (Derecho procesal penal) condena has two distinct meanings, denoting a criminal “conviction” (a judicial finding of guilt) or a “sentence” (the punishment imposed on a convicted criminal defendant): Fue condenado por narcotráfico (“He was convicted of drug trafficking”); Le condenaron a seis años de prisión (“He was sentenced to six years in prison”). Thus, in this context expressions such as sentencia de condena or sentencia condenatoria refer to a “judgment of conviction” or “judgment of guilty.”

But translators sometimes fail to recognize that condena is likewise a term of civil procedure (Derecho procesal civil) and that it does not refer only to a “judgment of guilty” or a “criminal sentence” as in the examples above, but that condena (al demandado) also has the additional meaning of “judgment for the plaintiff.” Thus, in the context of civil procedure an expression such as Se condenó al demandado means “judgment was rendered for the plaintiff” and not “the accused was convicted,” as this expression has sometimes been rendered.

In the classification of civil judgments, in contrast to sentencia declaratoria (a declaratory judgment without an award of relief), sentencia de condena and sentencia condenatoria denote a “judgment for the plaintiff” (called “claimant” in England and Wales) or, more generally, a “judgment awarding relief.” In that regard, condena dineraria or condena al pago de cantidad de dinero is a “money judgment,” while condena no dineraria denotes a “non-money judgment.” Condena de hacer is a “mandatory injunction,” i.e., a judgment ordering the defendant to perform a given act (to restore or transfer certain property to the plaintiff, for example) that might also be described as a “judgment ordering (or) compelling performance.” Conversely, a condena de no hacer is a type of “prohibitory injunction,” ordering the defendant to refrain from doing an act indicated in the judgment, which may likewise be translated descriptively as “judgment ordering defendant to refrain from X” or “judgment restraining defendant from X.”

Condena in this context is also used in expressions such as condena al pago de daños y perjuicios (“order to pay damages” or “damages order”) and condena en costas (“order to pay costs” or “costs order”). But perhaps it should be underscored that in Spanish the losing party is “ordered” (condenado) to pay damages or costs, while in English the same idea is generally expressed from the perspective of the prevailing or successful party who is “awarded” damages or costs. Thus, el demandado fue condenado al pago de daños y perjuicios means “defendant was ordered to pay damages,” but this is normally expressed in English as “plaintiff was awarded damages.” Likewise, el demandado fue condenado en costas indicates that the “defendant was ordered to pay (the plaintiff’s) costs,” but this is usually expressed in English as “plaintiff was awarded costs.” And in a sentencia sin condena en costas the judge makes “no costs order” (the losing party is not ordered to pay costs), which is generally expressed in English as “no award of costs” (i.e., the prevailing party is not awarded costs).

In line with the above, in criminal procedure el condenado denotes a person who has been convicted of a criminal offense (a “convicted criminal defendant”), or someone who has been sentenced in a criminal proceeding. But the meaning of condenado is quite different in the context of civil procedure in which the term refers to the “losing party” in a civil action in which a “judgment for the plaintiff” (sentencia condenatoria) has been rendered. In that regard, the condenado in a “money judgment” (condena dineraria) is a “judgment debtor,” while the expressions el condenado a pagar daños y perjuicios and el condenado en costas refer respectively to the losing party ordered to pay damages and the losing party ordered to pay costs.

False Friends: Legal Meanings of activo-pasivo and “active-passive”

When learning legal terminology in a bilingual context one of the first pitfalls encountered are so-called “false friends,” words or expressions that appear to be cognates, but are actually unrelated in meaning. Many years ago I set about identifying the “Top 40 False Friends in Spanish-English Legal Translation.” As the list grew I had to change the title to “101 False Friends.” In my collection I now have well over that number and will be sharing some of them in this blog. To be fair, many are only partial false friends that may actually be cognates when used in one branch of law, while perhaps qualifying as false friends in another legal practice area. And in some instances the cognate may simply not be the most appropriate rendering in legal contexts.

activo-pasivo; active-pasive

Activo and pasivo are used in many different areas of legal practice in which it would be meaningless to translate these terms literally as “active” and “passive.” When used as nouns, in accounting (contabilidad) activo often refers to “assets,” while pasivo denotes “liabilities:” activo circulante (“current assets”); activo fijo (“fixed assets”); activo de explotación (“operating assets”); pasivo circulante (“current liabilities”); pasivo a largo plazo (“long-term liabilities/loans”), etc. Likewise, in insolvency law (Derecho concursal) the expression masa activa del concurso denotes the assets of an insolvent’s estate, while masa pasiva del concurso refers to his liabilities, including all debts owed to creditors.

In civil procedure (Derecho procesal civil), the adjective activo/a often refers to the “plaintiff” or “claimant” (demandante), while pasivo/a denotes the “defendant” (demandado). Thus, legitimación activa is “plaintiff’s standing” or “standing to sue,” while legitimación pasiva is “defendant’s standing” or “standing to be sued.” Similarly, litisconsorcio activo refers to the “joinder of plaintiffs/claimants” and litisconsortes activos are “co-plaintiffs” or “co-claimants,” while litisconsorcio pasivo is “joinder of defendants” and litisconsortes pasivos are “co-defendants.”

In the Law of Obligations (Derecho de obligaciones or Derecho de la relación obligacional), an acreedor (“creditor” or “obligee”) is often referred to as the sujeto activo de la obligación (the party entitled to demand performance of the obligation), while the deudor (“debtor” or “obligor”) may be described variously as the sujeto pasivo de la obligación (the party who has undertaken to perform an obligation) or the sujeto activo del cumplimiento (the party who owes performance).

In that regard, solidaridad activa refers to an obligation in which a single debtor owes an obligation to two or more joint and several creditors, any of whom may demand performance of the entire obligation, while solidaridad pasiva denotes an obligation in which two or more debtors are jointly and severally liable to a single creditor for the same obligation and, thus, any of the debtors may be compelled to perform the entire obligation.

In criminal law (Derecho penal), sujeto activo may refer to the “principal” or “perpetrator” of a crime (often called autor del delito), while sujeto pasivo may, in turn, denote the “victim” (ofendido or víctima del delito). And with respect to specific offenses, for example, cohecho activo is the crime of “offering a bribe” to a public official, while cohecho pasivo denotes a public official’s accepting or “taking a bribe.”

In tax law (Derecho tributario), sujeto pasivo is one of several terms for “taxpayer,” and in this context the sujetos activos are of course the “tax authorities”  empowered to levy and collect taxes. Thus, for example, the expression sujeto pasivo por obligación personal is often used to denote a “resident taxpayer,” while sujeto pasivo por obligación real refers to a “non-resident taxpayer,” concepts that may likewise be expressed as sujeto pasivo residente and sujeto pasivo no residente.

In other respects, in electoral law (Derecho electoral), sufragio activo refers to the “right to vote,” while sufragio pasivo is the “right to stand for election.”

And finally, clases pasivas is an additional expression in which pasiva cannot appropriately be translated literally as “passive” (although it often appears as such, even in “official” translations). Sometimes mistranslated as “retired civil servants,” clases pasivas (del Estado) is actually a broader concept, referring to civil servants (funcionarios públicos) and their relatives or dependents (parientes o dependientes) who receive any type of pension or other benefit from the state, including retirees (jubilados), widows and widowers (viudas y viudos), orphans (huérfanos) or beneficiaries of disability pensions (beneficiarios de pensiones por incapacidad). In that regard, depending on the context clases pasivas may perhaps be translated broadly as “beneficiaries of civil service pensions” or “recipients of civil service benefits.”