Confusing Terms: acto and acta

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.

acto; acta—act

Acta is sometimes confused with acto and translated as “act.” These are multi-hued terms, but acto may often be rendered as “act,” while “act” is rarely an appropriate translation for acta. Perhaps the most common meaning of acta is “record” in the sense of relación escrita de lo sucedido, tratado o acordado en una junta (DRAE). In this context acta often denotes the “minutes of a meeting” (el acta de una reunion) and thus, for example, levantar acta de la Junta General is to “take the minutes of the shareholders meeting,” while libro de actas refers to a “minute(s) book.” In this context constar en acta refers to being “recorded in the minutes” (or, generally, to being “reflected on the record,”) while que conste en acta means “let the minutes (or) record reflect…”.

When acta has the additional meaning of certificación, testimonio, asiento o constancia oficial de un hecho (DRAE), it may be more appropriately translated as “certificate,” “certification” or simply “report.” Thus acta de diputado is a Spanish congressional deputy’s “certificate of election,” while acta de concejal is the “certificate of election” of a city council member (concejal de Ayuntamiento). In this context acta notarial refers to a notary’s certification of a given event, such as an Acta notarial de la Junta General (the minutes of a shareholders meeting taken and certified by a notary public); Acta notarial de deslinde con citación de colindantes (notarial certification of property boundaries made in the presence of abutting property owners) or Acta notarial de subasta (which records an auction conducted and certified by a notary).

The expressions acta de nacimiento, acta de matrimonio and acta de defunción are often used to denote respectively a “birth certificate,” “marriage certificate” and “death certificate.” However perhaps it should be noted that in Spain these documents are officially called “certificados.” Thus the documents actually issued by the Registro Civil (Spain’s “Bureau of Vital Statistics”) are certificados de nacimiento, certificados de matrimonio and certificados de defunción.

Acta constitutiva often describes a document evidencing the formation of a corporation or other business entity. In that sense and in certain contexts the expression may be rendered as “articles of incorporation” (US) or “memorandum of association” (UK), although in Spain in order to be valid an acta constitutiva must be reflected in a notarial instrument (escritura constitutiva) and subsequently recorded on the Registro Mercantil (Companies Register).

And, finally, in many contexts acta can likewise refer to a report issued by a government official. For example, in the context of law enforcement, acta may denote a report filed by a law enforcement officer or agent. In that regard acta de intervención de drogas might be described as a (police officer’s) “drug seizure report” and acta de intervención de armas as a “weapons seizure report.” In this context levantar acta does not refer to taking the minutes of a meeting, but rather to recording a procedure or event, as in la Policía procedió a levantar acta de intervención del arma, indicating that a weapons seizure report was duly filed.

As for acto, the term may often be rendered literally as “act,” as in acto de guerra (“act of war”); acto contrario a la ley (“unlawful act”) or acto delictivo (“criminal act”). But this is not always the case. For example, rather than the literal “act of service,” the expression morir en acto de servicio might be more appropriately rendered as “to die in the line of duty.”

In procedural contexts, acto procesal refers to an individual step or stage in a judicial proceeding. Acto de conciliación generally denotes a “settlement hearing” in which the parties to a dispute attempt to reach an agreement, while in the context of employer-employee disputes, in Spain the expression refers to a mandatory extrajudicial settlement hearing conducted by a labor conciliation board (Servicio de Mediación, Arbitraje y Conciliación) before the matter may be heard by a labor court (Juzgado de lo Social). Likewise, in first instance labor proceedings, the actual trial is often referred to as an acto del juicio. Thus, in this context se celebró el acto del juicio simply means that “the trial was held.”

In the context of criminal law the expression actos preparatorios denotes the initial steps taken in the comission of a crime before it is actually executed (actividad orientada a facilitar la realización de un delito). And in inheritance law, the expression acto de última voluntad is a synonym for testamento (“will”), while all notarially-certified wills (testamentos otorgados ante notario) are recorded on a Register of Wills called Registro de Actos de Última Voluntad.

In other respects, in English “act” is likewise used with different meanings in several legal contexts. The term commonly denotes laws passed by a parliament (leyes parlamentarias) or other legislative assembly, as in “Acts of Parliament” or “Acts of Congress,” (leyes emanadas del Parlamento británico o del Congreso norteamericano). Thus, laws passed by the Spanish Parliament (Cortes Generales) may appropriately be called “acts,” as in, for example, Ley del Mercado de Valores (“Securities Market Act”); Ley de Marcas (“Trademark Act”); or Ley de Enjuiciamiento Civil (“Civil Procedure Act”).

And the peculiar expression “acts of God” refers to natural disasters and events that may render contract performance impossible or impracticable, as opposed to “force majeure,” which also includes acts of man (strikes, war, etc.). In this sense “acts of God” is often equated with the Spanish concept of caso fortuito, while “force majeure” is most often rendered directly as fuerza mayor.

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