Legal Meanings of “bar”

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings
In his 1963 work “The Language of the Law,” the eminent legal linguist David Mellinkoff observed that legal discourse often uses “common words with uncommon meanings.” Indeed, in both Spanish and English, common words and expressions often take on unexpected meanings when used in legal contexts, and there are many simple, seemingly inoffensive everyday words and expressions that can prompt translation mistakes if their special legal meanings are ignored.  In this section I include some of the presumably simple legal English expressions that my students and translation clients have found most puzzling, along with a selection of legal Spanish terms that may stump translators when initially entering the legal translation field.


In what is perhaps its principle legal meaning, “bar” denotes the legal profession or lawyers collectively and, in that regard, the expression “bar association” may be rendered as colegio de abogados. In order to be “admitted to the bar” (colegiarse), American attorneys must pass a bar exam in the state in which they intend to practice law (ejercer la abogacía). Thus in order to be a “practicing attorney” (ejerciente; abogado en ejercicio), a lawyer must first become a “member of the bar” (abogado colegiado) and, for example, in a lawyer’s resumé or CV (curriculum vitae) the expression “admitted (to the bar) in 2002” indicates that he passed the bar exam that year. By extension, a “sidebar conference” is a courtroom discussion between the judge and the opposing attorneys conducted at the judge’s bench, out of the earshot of jurors.

Similarly, in England “bar” denotes barristers collectively, and “to be called to the bar” is to be admitted to the profession by one of the Inns of Court (professional associations for barristers). The “Bar Council” is the governing body of barristers for England and Wales.

But why does the term “bar” denote lawyers and the legal profession collectively? When I ask this question in class my students (all young Spanish lawyers who have seen many a US courtroom drama in TV series such as The Good Wife, The Good Fight or Suits) often reply that when an American lawyer wins a case he and his colleagues always wind up celebrating their victory at a bar. But despite lawyers’ portrayed penchant for alcohol, the reason has historic roots. There has traditionally been (and still is) a partition such as a bar or railing in common law courtrooms separating the spectators from the proceedings. And only those participating in the trial (judge, lawyers, parties) are allowed “beyond the bar.”

In other respects, in nonlegal contexts “bar” is a synonym of “prohibition,” having the additional meaning of “legal impediment.” When a right can no longer be exercised because the term for doing so has elapsed, it is often said to be “time-barred.” Laws establishing a limitations period during which rights must be exercised are know as “statutes of limitations,” such as the Limitation Act 1980 of England and Wales. Thus, as with “time-barred,” the expression “statute-barred” indicates that by law a right can no longer be exercised. Both may be rendered in Spanish as prescrito/a. In that regard, and to provide a few examples, a “statute-barred (or) time-barred debt” is a deuda prescrita (or deuda que ha prescrito), while a “statute-barred (or) time-barred offense” is a delito prescrito (or delito que ha prescrito).  And “the appeal is statute-barred (or) time-barred” indicates that el recurso ha prescrito.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s