Derecho (civil) común, the Common Law of Spain


English or Anglo-American common law is often referred to in Spanish as Derecho anglosajón and, indeed, it is misleading to translate “common law” literally as Derecho común. In that regard it is important to note that in Spanish legal texts the expression Derecho común probably isn’t a reference to English or Anglo-American “common law,” but rather most likely denotes the “common law” of Spain, i.e., civil law, or the law of the Spanish Civil Code (Código Civil).

By virtue of their vecindad civil (“regional domicile”) Spaniards are subject to either Derecho (civil) común (the common law of the Civil Code) or Derecho (civil) foral o especial (local law). In that regard, an expression such as el presente contrato se rige por el Derecho común español implies that “the present contract is governed by the Spanish Civil Code.” In the context of sources of business law (fuentes de Derecho mercantil), transactions not covered by the Commercial Code (Código de Comercio) are likewise governed by Derecho común, once again being a reference to the law of the Civil Code: En ausencia de normas mercantiles se aplica el Derecho común, esto es, el Derecho civil. And an expression such as las CCAA de régimen común likewise refers to the “Autonomous Communities subject to civil law (or) the Civil Code, rather than to Derecho foral o especial (local law).

In summary, unless the context suggests otherwise, in Spanish legal texts Derecho común denotes Spain’s common law (the Civil Code). If not clearly a mistranslation, rendering Derecho común in this context as “common law” might prove to be a miscue, prompting readers to assume that the reference is to English or Anglo-American “common law.” Thus, in this case Derecho común is perhaps best rendered as “(Spanish) civil law” or the “law of the (Spanish) Civil Code.”

More here on vecindad civil and the regions in Spain that have their own local law (Derecho foral o especial).

Legal Meanings of “Determine” and “Determinable”

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings

There are several legal contexts in which “determine” actually means “terminate,” i.e., “to come or bring to an end,” an archaic usage that is often unknown to nonlawyers and which may prompt confusion in translation. As examples, an “option to determine the lease” refers to an “option to terminate” that lease, while “this agreement shall determine upon the expiry of the Term” means that the lease will “terminate” when the Term expires.

Likewise, the adjective “determinable” is often used to describe an interest in property that will automatically terminate upon the occurrence of a specified event. Thus, the expressions “determinable fee estate,” “determinable fee,” and “fee simple determinable” refer to an estate (in this case, an ownership interest) in real property liable to terminate automatically if a given event occurs. If the event never occurs, ownership is absolute. As an example, if property is conveyed to a church “as long as it is used for church purposes,” the church has a fee simple determinable in that property. If the church ceases to use the property for church purposes, its rights in the property will terminate. Similarly, an “easement” (servidumbre) may likewise be created to determine (terminate) upon the happening of a specific occurrence (called a “determinable easement”).

(For more on easements, see here.)

Español jurídico: capacidad is “capacity,” right? (It may not be that simple!)

Confusing Terms2

“At first blush,” as they say, “capacity” would appear to be a logical translation for capacidad. But I recently saw “legal capacity” equated with both capacidad jurídica and capacidad de obrar (which are clearly not the same), so I thought it was worth exploring this matter in a little more depth.

Capacidad jurídica vs. capacidad de obrar

Capacidad jurídica and capacidad de obrar are civil law concepts from the Law of Persons (Derecho de la persona). Capacidad jurídica is defined as la aptitud para ser titular de derechos y obligaciones (por el solo hecho de ser persona y que comienza con el nacimiento y termina con la muerte del sujeto) no susceptible de restricciones o limitaciones. It is the capacity to have rights and obligations, to be the titular de derechos y obligaciones. Everyone born, and throughout their lifetime, has capacidad jurídica.

In contrast, capacidad de obrar is la aptitud para ejercer derechos y asumir obligaciones, susceptible de restricciones o limitaciones. This is the capacity to exercise the rights and assume the obligations that capacidad jurídica bestows on each person at birth. Mentally competent adults (mayores de edad no incapacitados) have this plena capacidad de obrar. Non-emancipated minors or adults adjudicated incompetent (menores no emancipados e incapaces) still have all of the rights inherent in capacidad jurídica but the exercise of those rights is susceptible to restrictions and limitations, requiring the consent or assistance of a representative, such as a parent or guardian (progenitor o tutor) to enable them to validly enter into legal transactions (realizar válidamente cualquier acto jurídico), i.e., to exercise their capacidad de obrar.

In view of the above, I think we can abandon hope of translating these concepts with simple two-word expressions. Capacidad jurídica may perhaps be rendered as “legal capacity,” but the context may require further explanation, such as noting that it is the “capacity to be the subject of rights and obligations acquired at birth.” And if capacidad jurídica is “legal capacity,” then capacidad de obrar is the “capacity to exercise legal capacity,” or perhaps (resorting to a definitional rendering) the “capacity to exercise rights and assume obligations.”

Capacidad para ser parte vs. capacidad procesal

These are often considered the procedural law counterparts of the Civil Code capacidad jurídica and capacidad de obrar. Capacidad para ser parte is defined as la capacidad para ser titular de derechos, obligaciones y cargas procesales como demandante o demandado en un proceso. In contrast, capacidad procesal refers to the capacity to actually appear at trial and fully participate in legal proceedings, defined as capacidad para comparecer en juicio y poder realizar actos procesales válidos. Examples of persons who lack this capacity to appear at trial include minors, the mentally incompetent, spendthrifts and the unborn (menores, incapaces, pródigos y los concebidos y no nacidos), who would have to appear at trial represented by a parent, guardian or a court-appointed guardian ad litem (progenitor, tutor o defensor judicial).

These concepts are equally difficult to render into English. Capacidad para ser parte might be described as the “capacity to be a party to a proceeding,” while capacidad procesal might be expressed as the “capacity to appear at trial,” neither of which admittedly reflects the complexity of the legal concept in Spanish. It should also perhaps be noted that capacidad procesal has sometimes been confused with “standing,” which in Spanish is legitimación, a term that may likewise warrant a future blog entry.

In summary, translators need to be aware of the differences between capacidad jurídica/capacidad de obrar and capacidad para ser parte/capacidad procesal, while hoping and praying that we never have to actually translate these concepts.


In this context, perhaps we should also look at some of the terminology relating to “incompetency proceedings,” or what in Spanish law is known as the proceso de declaración de incapacidad. In this context, incapacitación and declaración judicial de incapacidad denote a judge’s “adjudication of incompetence.” And a “person adjudicated incompetent” (persona judicialmente incapacitada) is known as an incapaz (“incompetent”). As explained above, such persons cannot directly exercise their capacidad de obrar or capacidad procesal and must do so through a representative.

Other standard expressions with capacidad

There are several other expressions in which capacidad can probably be safely rendered directly as “capacity”:

  • capacidad para contratar; capacidad contractual (contractual capacity; capacity to contract)
  • capacidad matrimonial (capacity to marry)
  • capacidad para suceder (capacity to inherit)
  • capacidad para testar (testamentary capacity)
  • capacidad convencional (capacity to negotiate and enter into a collective bargaining agreement)

Sources for the definitions provided above: (the Spanish) Código Civil; Carlos Lasarte, Principios de Derecho Civil I, Madrid, Marcial Pons; (the Spanish) Ley de Enjuiciamiento Civil; and Víctor Moreno Catena, Derecho Procesal Civil-Parte General, Valencia, Tirant lo Blanch.

Additional concepts and terminology from Léxico temático de terminología jurídica español-inglés:

  • capacidad jurídica/capacidad de obrar (pp. 567-568)
  • capacidad para ser parte/capacidad procesal (pp. 123-124)
  • incapacidad; incapacitación (pp. 186-187; 568)

Property Law: What is a Life Estate?

Legal English for Spanish Speakers

Of the seven units of Legal English* that I teach in the Máster en Asesoría Jurídica de Empresas at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, each year my students unanimously vote “Property Law” as the one they find the most difficult to understand. All of my students are young lawyers, but they perceive Anglo-American property law as being far removed from the system of derechos reales that they studied in their courses on Derecho Civil. And the concept of “life estate” is perhaps the aspect that they find most challenging. In the event it may be of interest to readers of this blog, I’m reviewing below some of the concepts that we recently discussed in class.

First, an overview:

Life Estate—A life estate is an estate limited in duration to either the life of the owner or the life of another person. It may be created by deed (in this context, an instrument by which a grantor grants to a grantee some type of interest in land), by will, or by operation of law. If A grants a life estate to B and retains the fee, he or she is said to have a reversionary interest (a right to the future enjoyment of property that one originally owned). When B dies, the land will revert (go back) to A. If A grants real property “to B and on B’s death to C,” B will own a life estate and C will own a remainder interest (an interest that takes effect after another estate has ended) in fee simple. Life tenants may likewise convey their interest to others. Thus, if B conveys his or her life estate to D, D will own a life estate for the duration of B’s life, after which the property will belong to C, the holder of the fee. When a person holds property for the duration of the life of another, this is known as an estate pur autre vie.

Here, the initial problem may reside in grasping the meanings of “estate,” “interest” and “fee” as used in property law contexts. Perhaps we can explore these concepts further in a future blog post, but for now it will suffice to say that here “estate” denotes the amount, degree, nature and quality of a person’s interest in land; “interest” refers to a legal or equitable claim or rights in property; and “fee” is a heritable interest in land, “fee simple” being absolute ownership akin to dominio pleno in Spanish property law.

But although the specific meanings of “estate,” “interest” and “fee” seemed clear to my students and they realized that (salvando las distancias) “life estate” might be considered somewhat similar to usufructo vitalicio, they still struggled to understand the three traditional life estates: reversionary interest; remainder interest and estate pur autre vie. Placing these in a practical example was the key. When we looked at this from the perspective of four friends, the relationships became clearer:

 Common Law Life Estates among Four Friends

(Paco, Javi, Manolo and Juan)

  • Reversionary interest

Paco is a generous guy who decides to grant his friend Javi a life estate in his beach house, while retaining the fee (ownership) for himself. After Javi dies the property will revert (return to; go back to) Paco, the original owner. Paco has retained a reversionary interest in the beach house over which he granted Javi a life estate.

  • Remainder interest

Paco grants a life estate in his beach house to Javi, stating that when Javi dies the property will go to another friend, Manolo. Javi has a life estate in the property while Manolo has a remainder interest, an interest that only takes effect after another estate has ended (and in legal terms Manolo is a remainderman).

  • Estate pur autre vie

Paco granted Javi a life estate in his beach house, but Javi already has a bigger house on a nicer beach. So Javi decides to convey his life estate in Paco’s beach house to Juan. Juan will have a life estate for as long as Javi is alive. So, Juan enjoys a life estate, but only during Javi’s lifetime. Juan holds the beach property for the duration of another person’s (Javi’s) life (pur autre vie—for the duration of the life of another).

For another aspect of property law (easements–servidumbres) see here

For general comments on derechos reales, see here

For more on usufructo, see here and here

*Contracts; Corporate Law; Civil Procedure; Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure; Labor Law; Property Law and Tax Law

Legal Look-alikes: When “evidence” isn’t evidencia

Legal _Look-alikes_

In the context of Spanish procedural law, “evidence” cannot usually be rendered as evidencia, but rather refers to prueba(s). After the parties’ initial “proposal of evidence” (proposición de la prueba), the judge will issue a “ruling on the admissibility of the proposed evidence” (resolución sobre la admisibilidad de las pruebas propuestas). In this context, inadmisión de los medios de prueba denotes a judge’s “exclusión of evidence” and práctica de la prueba refers to the “examination of evidence” at trial. Specific types of evidence (medios de prueba) include, among others, prueba testifical (“testimonial evidence,” “witness testimony”); prueba documental (“documentary evidence”) and prueba pericial (“expert evidence,” “expert witness testimony”).

Although the terminology of evidence is quite extensive, common classifications include prueba pertinente/impertinente (“relevant/irrelevant evidence”), prueba útil/inútil (“material/immaterial evidence,” in the sense of being appropriate or inappropriate for demonstrating the fact that it is intended to prove), and prueba directa or prueba presencial (“direct evidence, “eyewitness evidence”) as opposed to prueba indirecta or prueba indiciaria (“indirect evidence”or “circumstancial evidence”). In Spanish criminal procedure the expression prueba preconstituida denotes documented evidence existing prior to trial, which cannot be reproduced and examined later during the trial itself. Typical examples include “crime scene inspections” (inspecciones oculares en el lugar del delito); “autopsies” (autopsias), “breath alcohol tests” (pruebas de alcoholemia), and “police lineups” (ruedas de reconocimiento), called “identity parades” in BrE. In contrast, prueba anticipada refers to “evidence taken prior to trial” by the criminal trial judge, in the presence of all parties and under extraordinary circumstances (such as taking testimony from a terminally-ill witness who might not be able to testify in court at a later date).

Likewise in criminal procedure contexts, prueba obtenida ilícitamente is “illegally-obtained evidence,” while prueba prohibida specifically denotes “evidence obtained in violation of fundamental rights” (pruebas obtenidas, directamente o indirectamente, violentando los derechos o libertades fundamentales). And prueba de cargo is “incriminating evidence” as opposed to prueba de descargo (“exculpatory evidence”).

More ES-EN Legal False Friends: falta isn’t always “fault”

false friends fridays

In legal contexts there are several instances in which “fault” may be an inappropriate translation for falta. In criminal law, faltas may denote “misdemeanors” (minor criminal offenses), which are now called delitos leves in Spain. Falta may likewise have the meaning of “defect,” as in falta subsanable de un título presentado para su inscripción en el Registro, in reference to a “curable defect in a document presented for entry on the Register.”

In other respects, falta de often denotes a “lack of” something, and is thus rendered in multiple legal expressions such as falta de legitimación (“lack of standing”), falta de competencia (“lack of jurisdiction”), falta de pruebas (“lack of evidence”) or falta de diligencia o cuidado (“lack of diligence or care”).

And, similarly, falta de may also mean “failure to” do something, as in falta de pago de la prima (“failure to pay a premium”); falta de avenencia entre las partes (“parties’ failure to reach a settlement”); falta de personación en el procedimiento (“failure to enter an appearance in the proceedings”) ; falta de presentación de la declaración tributaria (“failure to file a tax return”), or falta de contestación a la demanda (“failure to answer the complaint”).