Latin in Legal Spanish: Principios del Derecho penal

The announcement that Latin is to be introduced as a new subject in English state schools got me thinking that you really don’t need to know Latin to understand Spanish criminal law, but it helps! Spanish criminal law textbooks generally commence with an explanation of the underlying principles of the discipline, many of which are rooted in Latin. In the event this may be of interest to followers of this blog, here is a brief overview of some of the basic principios del Derecho penal:

Principio de lex scripta, praevia et certaprinciple that criminal laws must be written, clear and non-retroactive:

  • lex scripta expresses the idea that criminal norms must be written (i.e., enacted in a statute or code)
  • lex praevia prohibits retroactive or ex post facto criminal laws, embodying two principles (nullum crimen sine praevia lege; nulla poena sine praevia lege) that provide that only those who commit an act defined as an offense in a previously-enacted law can be convicted or punished, and
  • lex certa underscores that criminal laws must be clear and unambiguous, being akin to the common law “void-for-vagueness doctrine” providing that a criminal statute that does not clearly specify what is allowed or prohibited is unconstitutional and a violation of due process.

Principio de nulla poena sine legale iudicio—principle that there can be no punishment without a legal (fair) trial with all due process guarantees

Principio de nulla poena sine culpa—principle that no one may be punished for a wrongful act if not culpable, nor inflicted with a punishment that exceeds the extent of his culpability

Principio pro actione—principle that the courts should facilitate access to justice

There are of course other criminal law principles that are not expressed in Latin (principio de la proporcionalidad de la pena; principio de la humanidad de las penas, etc.), as well as those concerning criminal trials and due process (el proceso penal y las garantías procesales), which I can perhaps address in a future blog post.

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