Confusing Terms: “breach,” “default,” “infringement,” “violation,” “infraction”

Although these nouns may be considered legal synonyms that are very close in meaning, they are rarely interchangeable when used in standard expressions (frases hechas) in specific contexts. Here are a few examples of the most common expressions in which they appear (there are many others!):

Breach: In contract law, “breach of contract” denotes incumplimiento contractual and is synonymous with “nonperformance” or “failure to perform.” Breach may be described as a “material breach” (incumplimiento grave) or “partial breach” (incumplimiento parcial), and it is often possible to “cure (or) remedy a breach of contract” (subsanar el incumplimiento contractual). In this context “breaching party” denotes the parte incumplidora, while “non-breaching party” is the parte cumplidora.” In contrast, in criminal or administrative law the expression “breach of the peace” refers to alteración del orden público while, in general, “breach of trust” denotes abuso de confianza. In other contexts “breach” may sometimes be rendered as quebrantamiento, as in the expressions “breach of duty” (quebrantamiento del deber) or “prison breach” (quebrantamiento de prisión), also called “breach of prison” or “prison breaking.”

Default: Like “breach,” “default” can denote incumplimiento contractual (“contractual default”). In this case, “defaulting party” denotes the parte incumplidora, while the “nondefaulting party” is the parte cumplidora.” In the context of civil procedure, “default” may refer to the nonappearance of a defendant in court (incomparecencia del demandado) or to his failure to respond to a complaint (demanda). In this instance, “to declare in default” is declarar en rebeldía, “default proceeding” is juicio en rebeldía, and “default judgment” or “judgment by default” is sentencia dictada en rebeldía. In banking law and the law of obligations in general, “default” has the additional meaning of “failure to pay a debt when due” (mora). In that sense “to be in default” (which may also be expressed as “to be in arrears”) is estar en mora, while the expression “default interest” refers to intereses moratorios, and a “default debtor” is a deudor en mora or deudor moroso.

Infringement: “Infringement” is frequently used in the context of intellectual property law to denote interference in an owner’s exclusive rights in a patent, trademark or copyright. The term is often rendered in Spanish as violación, as in “patent infringement” (violación del derecho de patente), “trademark infringement” (violación del derecho de marca) or “copyright infringement” (violación de derechos de autor).

Violación: “Violation” is used generically to denote general contraventions of law or rights and is often rendered as vulneración: “violation of the law,” (vulneración de la ley); “violation of constitutional rights,” (vulneración de los derechos constitucionales). In other respects, the expression “traffic violations” may denote lesser traffic offenses (faltas de tráfico).

Infraction: Similarly, “infraction” often refers to petty offenses and minor contraventions of rules or local ordinances and, indeed, there may be quite a bit of overlap with the term “violation”. In many US jurisdictions lesser violations of law that were previously classified as criminal offenses have been decriminalized and are now known as “infractions.” The most common are “traffic infractions” (infracciones de tráfico) for which the penalty is usually a fine, but not incarceration. Depending on local law, other civil infractions might include smoking in no-smoking areas, littering or violation of noise ordinances, among many others.

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