Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings: “Information”

In legal contexts “information” and información can often be considered equivalent concepts, as in información confidencial (confidential information) or delito de revelación de información clasificada (offense of disclosure of classified information). Likewise, in corporate law contexts, derecho de información refers to shareholders’ right to have access to company information.

But this is not always the case. Información privilegiada is indeed “insider information” but abuso de información privilegiada denotes “insider trading” or “insider dealing.” And información de derechos al detenido is the Spanish expression for “reading an arrestee his rights.”

As for “information,” translators may initially be puzzled the first time they see this common term used with an uncommon meaning in criminal law contexts where it denotes either the reporting of a crime (in England and Wales) called “laying an information,” or a formal criminal charge brought by a prosecutor (in the US).

For information(!), here are the pertinent definitions:

  • laying an information—giving a magistrate a concise statement (an information), verbally or in writing, of an alleged offense and the suspected offender, so that he can take steps to obtain the appearance of the suspect in court. Information can be laid by any member of the public, although it is usually done by the police (Oxford Dictionary of Law)
  • information—a formal criminal charge made by a prosecutor without a grand-jury indictment (Black’s Law Dictionary)

So, what are possible translations of “information” in these contexts? In the first case (the Oxford Dictionary definition for England and Wales), “information” might be rendered as denuncia de un delito (perhaps more commonly expressed in the US as a “crime report”), while “laying an information” might be translated as denunciar un delito (also more likely to be expressed in US English as “reporting a crime”). In the second case (the Black’s Law Dictionary definition), “information” could appropriately be rendered as escrito de acusación, which in Spain is the term denoting a prosecutor’s (fiscal) charging instrument.

Legal English: What is a “cloud on title”?

“Cloud” is one of those everyday English terms whose legal meaning is totally unrelated to its common one. Indeed, in legal contexts “cloud” has absolutely nothing to do with nubes, but rather is basically a synonym of “defect” as used in the expression “cloud on title.” Black’s 6th explains that cloud on title is an “outstanding claim or encumbrance which, if valid, would affect or impair the title of a particular estate,” while Black’s 8th simplifies the definition describing it as a “defect or potential defect in the owner’s title to a piece of land arising from a claim or encumbrance.” Aspects that could be considered a “cloud on title” include either (1) liens, mortgages, judgments and tax levies (etc.) on the property in question, or (2) actual defects in the title deed itself.

“Cloud on title” is a difficult expression to render in Spanish. The Cabanellas-Hoague EN-ES dictionary simply defines the concept as factor que incide negativamente sobre la certeza o validez de un título inmobiliario, sea por referirse a la existencia y transmisión del derecho previsto en ese título o los gravámenes o cargas respecto de tal derecho, without offering a Spanish translation. Google Translate and DeepL’s nube sobre el título obviously won’t work. The definitional renderings imperfección del título and título insuficiente (Alcaraz-Hughes) give an idea of the meaning, but perhaps don’t ring true in legal Spanish. And the same may perhaps be said of the defecto de título that often appears in Internet sources.

Adding to this difficulty is the fact that in this context the meanings of “title” and título may not actually be equivalent concepts. In that regard, “title” often refers to a document evidencing ownership (an already-registered “title deed”—title to my house; title to my car), while título denotes the documents evidencing different types of transactions that a rightsholder may apply to have recorded on the the Spanish Registro de la Propiedad. Thus, registrable rights (títulos inscribibles) include not only ownership of property (dominio; propiedad), but also any other of the rights in property (derechos reales) that one may seek to register (hipotecas, usufructo, servidumbres, etc.)

So, getting back to “cloud on title,” if the reference is to liens, mortgages, judgments or tax levies, perhaps “cloud” can be viewed here simply as an encumbrance (gravamen) on the property in question and “cloud on title” rendered as gravamen sobre el inmueble. But if the reference is actually to a defect in a registered title, this is known (at least in Spain) as inexactitud del Registro, and perhaps in this case “cloud on title” could be rendered as inexactitud registral.

Note: I’ve used plenty of wishy-washy “mays,” “perhaps” and “maybes” above, because “cloud on title” is very close to being one of the true intraducibles of Legal English.

Legal Meanings of “stay”

In nonlegal contexts “stay” is generally a synonym of “remain.” But in the language of court procedure “stay” (as a noun and as a verb) has a peculiar meaning, often referring to the postponement or suspension of a judicial proceeding. In that regard “to stay a trial” means suspender el juicio, while “stay of proceedings” may be rendered as suspensión de las actuaciones. And in reference to a court’s ruling, the expressions “stay of enforcement” and “stay of execution” both denote suspensión de la ejecución (de una sentencia). In that regard, although nonlawyers may associate the expression “stay of execution” specifically with the suspension of a death sentence, the expression may actually denote the suspension of the enforcement of any judgment.

Legal Meanings of “file” and “to file”

In nonlegal usage, “file” and its verb form “to file” are most often associated with the meanings archivo and archivar. In that sense, expediente is often the term that denotes a court’s (or a lawyer’s) “case file.” But in legal language “filing” is must often be translated as presentación while, as a verb, “to file” is generally rendered as presentar. In that regard, in procedural contexts “filing (or) entering an appearance (in the proceedings)” corresponds to a party’s personación (en la causa/en autos) in Spanish procedure. In civil litigation one may “file a complaint or counterclaim” (presentar una demanda o reconvención), while in criminal contexts one may “file (or) bring charges” (presentar una denuncia/querella). In family proceedings, a spouse may “file for divorce” (presentar demanda de divorcio), and in guardianship cases a potential guardian “files for guardianship” (promueve la constitución de la tutela). As a final example, in tax law contexts, one “files a tax return” (presenta la declaración de la renta).

Legal Meanings of despacho

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings

Despacho is one of those common words that can have several different meanings in legal contexts. It is perhaps most often used in the expression despacho de abogados, one of the Spanish terms for “law firm.”

In the context of customs law (Derecho aduanero), despacho aduanero denotes “customs clearance” and despachar mercancías en aduanas is “to clear the goods through customs.” In EU customs terminology, despacho is often expressed as “release:” despacho a libre práctica (“release for free circulation”); despacho a consumo (“release for consumption”).

And in a third sense, despacho can also be a synonym for título, being defined in the DLE as documento escrito, título o comisión que se da a alguien para algún empleo o cargo. As an example, after finishing their training at the Escuela Judicial in Barcelona, newly-graduated Spanish judges receive their diplomas and assignments (destinos) in a ceremony known as entrega de despachos.

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.)

Legal English: “legal” meanings of “award”

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings

Everyone with a minimal knowledge of English will recognize “award” as a synonym of “prize” (the Academy Awards; The Best Fifa Football Awards). But there are several legal meanings of “award” that might not be so obvious. In the context of court rulings, a judge may “award damages” to the successful party in a civil suit. But ¡ojo! In Spanish this is expressed from the perspective of the losing party who is condenado al pago de daños y perjuicios (literally, “ordered to pay damages”) to the successful party.

Likewise, a court may “award costs” to the successful party in litigation, which (once again) in Spanish is expressed from the perspective of the losing party who is condenado en costas (“ordered to pay costs”). In that regard, condena en costas is a “costs award” or “award of costs,” but is also often expressed in English as a “costs order” or “order for costs.”

In arbitration, an arbitrator’s decision is not a judgment, but rather an “award” (in Spanish, laudo arbitral). So, “award” in this context must always be translated as laudo.

And, as a final example, in English a contract is “awarded” to the winning bidder. Thus, adjudicar un contrato is “to award a contract” (never “adjudicate,” a false friend explained here).

Common Words with Uncommon (Legal) Meanings: señalar; señalamiento

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings

In his 1963 work “The Language of the Law,” the eminent legal linguist David Mellinkoff observed that legal discourse often uses “common words with uncommon meanings.” Indeed, in both Spanish and English common words and expressions often take on unexpected meanings when used in legal contexts, and there are many simple, seemingly inoffensive everyday words and expressions that can prompt serious translation mistakes if their special legal meanings are ignored. Here we take a look at possible legal meanings of señalar and señalamiento.

In common usage señalar means “to show, underscore or point out.” But in Spanish court procedure señalar often has the meaning of “to schedule,” “to docket” or “to calendar” (i.e., to set the date for trial, for rendering judgment, or for some other court event). Thus, the expression se acordó señalar el día diez de enero para votación y fallo indicates that the case in question was “scheduled (or) docketed (or) calendared for final deliberations and rendering judgment on January 10.”

The noun form is señalamiento and is often used in the sense of “trial.” Thus. petición de suspensión de vista por tener el letrado dos señalamientos is a lawyer’s request to have a hearing postponed due to his having two trials (señalamientos) scheduled on the dockets of different courts at the same time and day. In such cases the court is asked to señalar nueva fecha (reschedule the hearing on another day).

In other respects, in the informal jargon of Spanish real estate transactions señalar is sometimes used with the additional meaning of dar una señal (“to give a deposit” or “to put up earnest money”). Thus entregaron una cantidad de dinero para señalar el piso means “they put up earnest money as a deposit on the apartment.”

“Entertain” Used in Legal Contexts

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings

In everyday English “entertain” is most often associated with providing amusement or with offering hospitality to a guest. But as a verb, “entertain” has the additional meaning of “to bear in mind” or “to take under consideration,” and in legal contexts means “to give judicial consideration to” (Black’s). Thus “the court entertained the motion for continuance” indicates that the judge considered the party’s request for a delay (but may or may not have decided to grant it). Here are a few examples of how “entertain” is used in this context:

  • In no event shall any judge entertain such motion if it be made after the making of an opening statement by counsel for plaintiff.
  • Court finds that it cannot entertain the case because there was no dispute between the parties on the date when the application was filed.
  • The judge will not entertain any written discovery motions until the Court has been provided with an opportunity to informally mediate the parties’ dispute.
  • In the absence of leave from an appellate court, a trial judge lacks jurisdiction to entertain a motion while judgment is pending on appeal.

Legal Meanings of “Call”

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings

The common word “call” is often used in legal expressions as a verb, noun or adjective in which it can rarely be translated literally as “call.” To cite just a few examples, “to call a meeting” is convocar una reunión, while “to call a meeting to order” might be rendered as abrir la sesión. “To call an election” is convocar elecciones, while “to call a loan” denotes a demand for accelerated repayment (exigir el reembolso anticipado de un préstamo). “To call a witness” or “to call to testify” are expressions that both may mean citar a un testigo. And in England “to be called to the bar” is to be admitted to the legal profession by one of the Inns of Court (professional associations for barristers).

As a noun, in the language of securities trading “call” or “call option” refers to an opción de compra, as opposed to a “put” or “put option” that denotes opción de venta (often paired together as “put and call”). “To call the roll” is pasar lista (noun: roll call), and in the context of shareholders meetings a “quorum call” is roll call of shareholders to determine whether a quorum is present.

And, finally, the adjective “callable” is also widely used in securities trading as a synonym of “redeemable,” as in “callable bonds” (bonos redimibles), i.e., bonds that may be redeemed by the issuer before maturity (que se pueden rescatar antes de su vencimiento).