50 Pairs of Spanish-English Legal False Friends

When learning legal terminology in bilingual contexts one of the first pitfalls encountered are the so-called “false friends,” look-alike terms and expressions that appear to be cognates, but are actually unrelated in meaning. Readers of this blog know that I’m really into false friends because there are so many and they are so confusing. Long ago I set about identifying the “Top 40 False Friends in Spanish-English Legal Translation” to present to my students of Legal English. As the list grew I had to change the title to “101 False Friends.” In my collection I now have several hundred that I have been sharing in this blog.

To be fair, many of these pairs are only partial false friends that may actually be cognates when used in one branch of law, while perhaps qualifying as false friends in another legal practice area. And in some instances, the cognate may simply not be the most appropriate rendering in legal contexts.

Perhaps it should also be underscored that some of the material presented here is Spain-specific, and that the suggested translations may not always reflect the meanings of the terms in other Spanish-speaking countries. Certain expressions that may be considered false friends in legal contexts in Spain may not be in other Spanish-speaking jurisdictions where there may be more English influence. As an example, in Spain in the context of court procedure “evidence” is properly rendered as prueba, although it may be called evidencia elsewhere. Likewise corte denotes a “court” in many Spanish-American jurisdictions, although the use of the term in Spain is most often limited to international tribunals such as the Corte Penal Internacional (also known as the Tribunal Penal Internacional), while Spanish courts are variously called juzgados, tribunales, audiencias, órganos judiciales or órganos jurisdiccionales.

This week I realized that I’ve highlighted 50 pairs of False Friends in the blog and thought it might be of interest to put them together in a single list with links to the entries. So here they are…





activo; pasivo-active; pasive










colegio electoral-Electoral College





Derecho común-common law


disolución del matrimonio-dissolution of marriage


















puro y simple-pure and simple












Spanish-English Terminology of Gender Pay Discrimination

Today I received a notice from my gestoría indicating that a new law (Real Decreto 902/2020, de 13 de octubre, de igualdad retributiva entre mujeres y hombres) will soon come into force, seeking to bridge Spain’s gender pay gap. Since I’m always on the lookout for new legal terminology, I’m sharing below some of the terms I jotted down as I read the text of the law in the BOE. I’ve included possible English translations. (There may be other appropriate renderings and readers may suggest additional terms).

  • brecha salarial (wage/pay gap)
  • brecha de género (gender gap)
  • igualdad salarial (wage/pay parity)
  • principio de igualdad retributiva (equal pay principle)
  • igual retributiva/igualdad de remuneración por trabajo de igual valor (equal pay for equal work)
  • discriminación retributiva por razón de sexo (gender pay discrimination)
  • transparencia retributiva (pay transparency)
  • auditoría retributiva (salary review)
  • retribuciones/percepciones extrasalariales (non-salary compensation; “perks;” perquisites; fringe benefits)

False Friends: When patrimonio is not “patrimony”

Patrimonio is often translated literally as “patrimony,” but this may sound awkward in several contexts. In that regard, patrimonio often refers simply to one’s “property,” “assets” or “estate.” Thus, for example, the Spanish Criminal Code offense of delitos de falsedad contra el patrimonio y contra el orden socioecónomico may be rendered simply as “offenses against property and economic interests,” since they include crimes such as theft (hurto), burglary (robo con fuerza en las cosas), robbery (robo con violencia o intimidación en las personas), extortion (extorsión) and unauthorized use of a vehicle (robo y hurto de uso de vehículo a motor—often called “joyriding” in English). Likewise, in inheritance law patrimonio del causante denotes the “deceased’s (or) decedent’s estate,” rather than his “patrimony.”

In other respects, in Spain the expressions patrimonio histórico and patrimonio histórico-cultural refer to “cultural heritage assets” protected under the Ley de Patrimonio Histórico Español. And impuesto sobre el patrimonio is simply a “wealth tax,” while incrementos y disminuciones de patrimonio denotes “capital gains and losses.”

The term patrimonio social (in general, “business assets”) warrants a closer look, since its translation may vary according to the type of business entity to which the expression refers. In that regard, the patrimonio social of a sociedad anónima are “corporate assets.” But if, for example, the entity in question is a partnership (sociedad colectiva or sociedad comanditaria), patrimonio social would be better rendered as “partnership assets.”

And as a final example, patrimonio ganancial (also: bienes gananciales) denotes the spouses’ commonly-owned community property in a community property marriage (sociedad de gananciales), in contrast to to their individually-owned property or assets (their patrimonio privativo or bienes privativos).

Español jurídico: Who is el Magistrado Ponente?

El magistrado ponente (or just ponente) is the judge on a multi-judge court (tribunal; órgano colegiado) who is assigned to oversee a given case and, ultimately, to write the court’s opinion, reflecting the final decision of his colleagues after their deliberations have concluded. In that regard, in judgments rendered by Spanish courts it is common to see a judge’s name followed by the reference that he was the magistrado ponente:

Ha sido Ponente la Magistrada Doña XXXX, quien expresa el parecer de la Sala.

Ha sido Magistrado Ponente el Ilmo. Sr. D. XXXX, quien expresa el parecer de la Sala

In international courts in which French is one of the official languages, magistrado ponente is often referred to as “judge rapporteur” (European Court of Justice; European Court of Human Rights), prompting some translators to use this expression for ponente or to render it literally as “reporting judge,” or even as “speaker judge (or) magistrate.”

But it should be noted that “judge rapporteur” and “reporting judge” are not used in Anglo-American court opinions, and the key to appropriately translating magistrado ponente actually appears in the Spanish examples above: quien expresa el parecer de la Sala. Indeed, Anglo-American judgments commonly indicate the name of the judge in question followed by the expressions:

  • “writing (or) who wrote the opinion of the court”
  • “delivering (or) who delivered the opinion of the court”
  • “giving (or) who gave the opinion of the court”

Thus, el parecer de la Sala is, obviously, “the opinion of the court.”

“Writing/wrote the opinion of the court” appears to be more common in US courts, while “deliver/delivering (and) giving/gave the opinion of the court” seems to occur more often in UK sources. Here are some examples of all three:

  • Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens said: “It is true that we have repeatedly recognized the governmental interest in protecting children from…
  • Writing for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found that the law school had a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body and that…
  • The Lord Justice General, writing the opinion of the court, said:. “In view of the difficulties which have arisen with the English prison authorities since …
  • Lord Reed, delivering the opinion of the court, said: “Where the summons has not called within the period specified by the rule, the automatic consequence….
  • The Opinion of the Court was delivered by the Lord Justice General. In that Opinion, he recorded that in the course of the hearing of the petition a number
  • L Phillips MR (delivering the opinion of the court) acknowledged that the difficulties the current “multiple publication” rule posed for Internet publishers…
  • Giving the opinion of the court, Lord Justice Clerk Gill said: “On the information before us, we conclude that the Society is neither secret nor sinister…
  • Giving the opinion of the court, the Lord President said it was clear that the effect of the statutory provisions, when read together, is that the court…

(concerning dissenting or concurring opinions see here)

Legal look-alikes: legado vs. legacy

Many bilingual sources equate legado with legacy, a translation that may sometimes be inappropriate. In the Spanish law of succession (Derecho de sucesiones) legado denotes a testamentary gift of either personal property (legado de bienes muebles) or real property (legado de bienes inmuebles) to someone other than the decedent’s testamentary heirs (herederos testamentarios). But legado cannot always be equated with legacy, because in English a distinction has traditionally been made between a testamentary gift of personal property (properly called a “legacy” or “bequest”) and a testamentary gift of real property (technically called a “devise”). Thus, legado de bienes muebles may be rendered as “legacy” (or “bequest”), but legado de bienes inmuebles is more properly called a “devise.” Likewise, legatario (the beneficiary of a legado) may denote either a “legatee” or “devisee,” depending on whether the beneficiary in question receives a testamentary gift of personal property (“legacy” or “bequest”) or real property (“devise”).

To further complicate matters, perhaps it should also be noted that in modern usage, particularly in the US, this technical distinction between a “legacy” or “bequest” (a testamentary gift of personal property) and a “devise” (a testamentary gift of real property) is often disregarded, and the terms may be mixed or interchanged. In fact, the Uniform Probate Code (adopted in 18 states) has eliminated the distinction altogether. “Legacy,” “legatee,” “bequest” and the verb “bequeath” are not used, while “devise” has been adopted to encompass testamentary gifts of both real and personal property. In that regard, in the Code when used as a noun “devise” denotes a “testamentary disposition of real or personal property” while as a verb “to devise” means “to dispose of real or personal property by will.”

Español jurídico: What are clases pasivas?

Clases pasivas (del Estado) is a broad term, referring to Spanish civil servants (funcionarios públicos) and their relatives or dependents (parientes o dependientes) who receive any type of pension or other benefit from the state, including retirees (jubilados), widows and widowers (viudas y viudos), orphans (huérfanos) or beneficiaries of disability pensions (beneficiarios de pensiones por incapacidad).

Despite this very specific meaning, classes pasivas has been translated multiple times literally as “passive classes,” even on official Spanish government, law firm and university websites. But this rendering is nonsensical and would obviously be meaningless to a US or UK lawyer or any other English-speaking audience unfamiliar with the Spanish civil service pension system. So, it’s worth the effort to avoid a literal translation and attempt to find something that actually reflects what clases pasivas means. Here are a couple of definitions:

Clases pasivas—Las personas que disfrutan de ventajas económicas por haber prestado servicios al Estado o por ser parientes o dependientes de los que fueron funcionarios, constituyen las “clases pasivas”. Dentro de éstas, los que fueron funcionarios se denominan “jubilados” o “retirados”, los familiares o dependientes de los que fueron servidores del Estado se denominan “pensionistas” o “pensionados”. (L. Ribó Durán. Diccionario de Derecho, Barcelona: Bosch, 2005)

Clases pasivas—Bajo esta denominación se califica el régimen de derechos de los funcionarios públicos (o sus causahabientes), una vez que cesan en la prestaciòn de sus servicios (jubilación, muerte). Su regulación se contiene en el Texto Refundido de la Ley de Clases Pasivas de 1987. (Juan Manuel Fernández Martínez, et.al. Diccionario Jurídico, Navarra: Thompson/Aranzadi (3rd ed.), 2004)

Based on these definitions, clases pasivas can perhaps be safely rendered as as “beneficiaries of civil service pensions” or “recipients of civil service benefits.”

Terminology of Civil Procedure: What is “standing” (and how is it expressed in Spanish?)

One of the major news items this weekend was the US Supreme Court’s order denying Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to file a bill of complaint with the Court challenging the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Supreme Court’s ruling was short and sweet: “The State of Texas’ motion to file a bill of complaint is denied for lack of standing.”

But few reporting on this matter in Spain appeared to understand the concept of “standing:”

  • Using the terminology of criminal procedure, TV1 called the motion a denuncia and said that the Supreme Court had ruled that Tejas no está en posición de pedir que se anulen votos en otros Estados… .
  • Calling the motion a demanda, Antena 3 claimed that the Supreme Court declared that the plaintiff’s petition carece de fundamentos, despite the fact that the Court made no ruling on the merits;
  • Tele5 said that the Supreme Court desestimó la querella, likewise insinuating that there was a ruling on the merits, while also mixing the terminology of civil and criminal procedure;
  • LaSexta noted that the Supreme Court tumbó la demanda del Fiscal General de Tejas.
  • El País reported that the Court rechazó la demanda…,
  • while El Mundo indicated that it rechazó el recurso de Texas.
  • Both ABC and Público chose to translate the sole argument in the Supreme Court’s order, noting that Texas no ha demostrado un interés reconocible judicialmente sobre la manera en que otro Estado celebre sus elecciones.*
  • Europapress, like others, used the expression rechazó la demanda, and
  • once again, confusing this with a criminal proceeding, Agencia EFE said that the Supreme Court desestimó la querella.

As noted above, the State of Texas’ motion was denied for “lack of standing,” a concept that wasn’t accurately reflected in any of the Spanish news reports shown above. So what is “standing”? And more importantly for legal translators, how can the expression be rendered in Spanish?

In this context, “standing” (most often expressed in British English with the Latin phrase locus standi) is simply the “right to bring an action or challenge a decision” (Oxford Dictionary of Law). The corresponding concept in Spanish is legitimación, defined as la facultad de actuar en el proceso que tiene el titular de un derecho material concreto para ejercitarlo o defenderlo (Diccionario Jurídico Colex). So the US Supreme Court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion for “lack of standing” means that it was rejected based on their falta de legitimación.

Related vocabulary that may be of interest to legal translators:

  • legitimación—standing to sue or be sued**
  • legitimación activa—plaintiff’s/claimant’s (E&W) standing; standing to sue
  • legitimación pasiva—defendant’s standing; standing to be sued
  • legitimación extraordinaria/indirecta—third-party standing
  • legitimación por sucesión procesal—standing acquired upon party substitution

View the State of Texas’ motion for leave to file a bill of complaint here

View the Supreme Court’s order denying the motion here

*“Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections.”

**A distinction is often made between legitimación ad processum, general standing in the sense of having the capacity to sue or be sued (adults of sound mind, not under a disability, etc.) and legitimación ad causam or standing to sue or be sued in a specific proceeding brought before the court.

Spanish-English Legal Terminology: Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure

This week I’m teaching our final unit for the semester on Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure. For followers of this blog and, particularly, for my students of Legal English, here are links to previous posts for those interested in exploring the terminology of these legal disciplines:

1) General Terminology of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure

2) Confusing Terms, Strange Expressions and False Friends in Spanish-English Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure (and suggestions as to how to translate them)

3) Specific Offenses

Weird Legal Spanish: What is a causídico/a?

This fairly obscure term is sometimes used in Spain as a synonym for procurador/a, being defined in the DLE as procurador o representante de una parte en el proceso. As examples, se dio traslado al causídico… simply means that “the procurador was notified” about the matter in question. Apoderamiento del causídico denotes “power of attorney granted to the procurador, while designación de causídico mediante comparencia ante el Secretario Judicial is a reference to a client’s appointment (i.e., grant of power of attorney) to his procurador in person in the presence of a court clerk (known formally as designación apud acta), rather than by submitting a poder notarial (“notarial power of attorney”).

Confusing Terms in Legal English: “executor” vs. “administrator”

As used in inheritance law (Derecho de sucesiones) these are related terms that are sometimes confused. An executor of a will is an albacea testamentaria, that is, a person appointed by a testator in his will to carry out its provisions upon his death. A female executor was formerly known as an “executrix” (plural: “executrices”), a term now considered archaic, “executor” now being the preferred English designation for albaceas testamentarias of both sexes.

In contrast, a person appointed by a court to manage the estate of an intestate decedent (causante muerto intestado) or when no executor has been appointed is called an “administrator” (in Spanish, albacea judicial or albacea dativo). Although “administrator” is now used for an albacea judicial of either sex, a female administrator was formerly known as an “administratrix” (plural: “administratrices”).