False Friends in Procedural Terminology: abstención vs. abstention

Oh, no! False Friends

abstención; abstention

abstenerse; abstain

These pairings are often cognates as, for example, in the context of electoral law when used in expressions such as abstenerse de votar (“to abstain from voting”) or tasa de abstención (“abstention rate”).

But in other areas of law these expressions may be false friends. In procedural contexts, a judge’s duty to refrain from hearing a case due to a conflict of interest or for other legally-established grounds is known as el deber de abstención. In this case abstención cannot be translated literally as “abstention,” but rather denotes a judge’s “recusal of himself.” When there are grounds for recusing oneself (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). Thus, el juez se abstuvo de conocer el asunto indicates that the “judge recused himself from the case,” (rather than the literal rendering “the judge abstained/refrained from hearing the case” as it is sometimes rendered.

In other respects, both the parties to a civil or criminal proceeding and the public prosecutor (las partes y el Ministerio Fiscal) may file a “motion to recuse” or “motion for recusal” (promover incidente de recusación) if a judge does not recuse himself when deemed warranted. Thus, as indicated above, abstenerse refers to a judge’s recusal of himself, while the cognate recusar is the term used when a third party recuses a judge or other official.

It may be of interest to note that in US practice a judge may be recused (recusado) or may recuse himself (abstenerse), while “abstention” is often used to refer to a federal court’s relinquishment of jurisdiction to avoid conflict with a state court or agency.

See here for more on abstención, recusación, inhibición, declinatoria and inhibitoria


5 thoughts on “False Friends in Procedural Terminology: abstención vs. abstention

  1. En México generalmente no se usa el término “abstención” con el significado de “recusal”, sino “excusa”, aun cuando ambos términos significan lo mismo. Así aparece en internet:

    La excusa es la abstención de los jueces de conocer un proceso cuando en ellos concurran algunas de las circunstancias legales que hacen dudosa su imparcialidad. Esas circunstancias son: Que el juez sea pariente, compadre, amigo o enemigo, deudor o acreedor de alguna de las partes.

    Otros “falsos amigos” más obvios son ” “utilidades” por “utilities” / “comodidades” por “commodities” / “injuria” por “injury” / “rapto” por “rape”, etc.


  2. In Colombia they have “resolución inhibitoria”, which I was going to translate as recuse, until I realized that it was something negative. It refers to when judges unduly refuse to pass sentence, and is something they’re trying to cut down on in Colombia, because it happens too often. In my translation I used “cases in which judges abstain from passing judgment” (it only came up once, and it wasn’t important in my context to come up with a concise term).

    I’m planning to write a blog post about this particular term, in which I’ll discuss how I worked out what it meant and how utterly useless the answers given to someone on Proz.com were (answers that were given only a few minutes of the question being asked, with a list of Google results as the source).


    • Hi, Tim. You are so right. Too often answers are offered on Proz without taking into account the specific context or the country of origin of the question. Sometimes the asker doesn’t provide that essential context. And, of course, googling rarely works for translating legal terms.


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