Mistranslations of Ministerio Fiscal and Ministerio Público

Several Spanish web sources and a monograph published in English on the Spanish legal system translate Ministerio Fiscal literally as “Fiscal Ministry,” and this rendering may prompt readers unfamiliar with Spanish institutions to assume that the Ministerio Fiscal is in some way related to taxes or the tax authorities. In English “fiscal” often denotes “of or relating to financial matters, public finance or taxation” (Black’s Law Dictionary) and, thus, the literal translation “Fiscal Ministry” may indeed erroneously suggest that the Ministerio Fiscal is a Ministerio para asuntos fiscales or “Tax Ministry.”

But in fact Ministerio Fiscal (as well as Ministerio Público and Fiscalía) all refer to Spain’s “Public Prosecution Service,” (or) “Office of the Public Prosecutor,” and in this context a fiscal is a “public prosecutor” (called “district attorney” in many US jurisdictions). In summary (and despite the name), the Ministerio Fiscal is not a government ministry and is totally unrelated to taxation, the term simply denoting Spain’s autonomous “Public Prosecution Service.” In contrast, as a part of the Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda (“Ministry of Economy and the Treasury”) the Agencia Tributaria is Spain’s tax service, similar to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the US or HM Revenue & Customs (formerly Inland Revenue) in the UK.

Likewise, Ministerio Público has also often been translated literally as “Public Ministry,” and even as “ministerial office.” But, once again, these renderings fail to convey the fact that Ministerio Público is simply another term for Ministerio Fiscal.

For US audiences Ministerio Fiscal, Ministerio Público and Fiscalía have sometimes been translated as “Justice Department” or “Attorney General’s Office,” and Fiscal General del Estado has often been rendered as “Attorney General.” But, once again, these may not be accurate renderings for those Spanish institutions. The position of the Department of Justice within the executive branch of the US government is actually more akin to the Spanish Ministerio de Justicia. While the Attorney General is part of the US President’s Cabinet (as is the Ministro de Justicia who sits on the government’s Consejo de Ministros), as underscored above, the Ministerio Fiscal (despite being called a “ministerio”) is an autonomous entity that is not a government ministry at all. Moreover, the Fiscal General del Estado is not a cabinet member (miembro del Consejo de Ministros), but rather may perhaps be described as the “Chief Public Prosecutor” or “Head of the Public Prosecution Service.” Thus, “Public Prosecution Service” would again appear to be a more accurate translation for Ministerio Fiscal, Ministerio Público and Fiscalía, even for US readers. And, in other respects, rendering these three terms as “Crown Prosecution Service” for UK audiences may likewise be equally inappropriate, since criminal prosecutions in Spain are not brought “on behalf of the Crown” as they are in the UK and other Commonwealth countries.