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Dictionary of legal terms - U-Z
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[Home][Index - Dictionary][Dictionary of legal terms - U-Z]

UK Law Dictionary - English Legal System

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Ultra vires 


[Latin: without authority].  An act which is beyond the powers or authority of the person or organization which took it. 



Any natural or legal person, of whatever judicial character, capable of carrying on some commercial or economic activity in the goods or services sector.

Unjust enrichment


A legal procedure whereby you can seek reimbursement from another who benefited from your action or property without legal justification.




There are three conditions which must be met before you can get a court to force reimbursement based on "unjust enrichment":  


An actual enrichment or benefit to the defendant,


a corresponding deprivation to the claimant,


and the absence of a legal reason for the defendant's enrichment.




For example (and ignoring the law of theft), if you found somebody else's cash and spent it, you might be sued for reimbursement under unjust enrichment.




The legal theory behind unjust enrichment is the constructive trust, which the court imposes upon the circumstances to hold the person unjustly enriched as the trustee for the person who should properly get the property back, held to be the beneficiary of the constructive trust. 

Unliquidated damages


Quantum of damages that has not yet been determined. So, not a specific amount.  The judge (or occasionally a jury e.g. in defamation) decides how much the damages will be guided by lawyers for each side.




General damages are for such things as pain and suffering, loss of amenity, prospective loss of future earnings, and as such cannot be known until liquidated, whereas the cost of a replacement article, or the cost of repair to say a car, can be.


see liquidated damages



From ancient Roman law (and now a part of many civil law systems), "usufruct" means the rights to the product of another's property.




For example, a farmer may give a right of "usufruct" of his land to a neighbour, thus enabling that neighbour to sow and reap the harvest of that land. 



Excessive or illegal interest rate. Most countries now prohibit interest rates above a certain level; and rates which exceed these levels are called "usury". 




A tramp or homeless person. 



The seller; the person selling, used frequently to describe the seller of a house or land.

Venire de novo


[Latin] A QBD order requiring a new trial following a verdict given in an inferior court. In criminal matters the court of trial may, before verdict, discharge the jury and direct a fresh jury to be summoned, and even after verdict, if the findings are so imperfect as amount to no verdict at all.




The Court of Appeal, where it holds that the trial of the appellant was a nullity, may order that the appellant be tried on the indictment. The circumstances in which the Court of Appeal may order a venire de novo can be found in R v Rose [1982] HL



This has the same meaning as in everyday English except that in a legal context it usually refers specifically to the location of a judicial hearing.




For example, if a criminal case has a very high media profile in a particular city, the "venue" may change to another town to ensure objective witnesses (i.e. that would not have been spoiled by media speculation on the crime).  This happened in the trial of Litchfield (see R v Litchfield)



Any thing that is designed to transport persons or objects. A bicycle is a vehicle. 

Verba fortius accipiuntur contra proferentem 


[Latin: a principle of construction whereby if words of a contract are ambiguous, of two equally possible meanings, they should be interpreted against the author of the words and not against the other party]. 



The decision of a jury. In criminal cases, this is usually expressed as "guilty" or "not guilty". In a civil case, the verdict would be a finding for the claimant or for the defendant. 



The Scottish version of the plea in English law in defamation of 'justification'. 

Vexatious litigant 


In Attorney General v Barker Bingham LJ described the characteristics of vexatious individuals:


“The hallmark usually is that the [claimant] sues the same party repeatedly in reliance on essentially the same cause of action, perhaps with minor variations, after it has been ruled upon thereby imposing on defendants the burden of resisting claim after claim; that the [claimant] relies on potentially the same cause of action … against successive parties who if they were to be sued at all should have been joined in the same action; that the claimant automatically challenges every adverse decision on appeal; and that the claimant refuses to take any notice of or give any effect to orders of the court”


Bingham LJ stated that a vexatious proceeding is one which has little or no basis in law and its effect, whatever its intention, is to subject the defendant to inconvenience.




Grepe v Loam established that it is possible to obtain an order preventing a litigant from making an application without the leave of the court, failing which that application will be dismissed without being heard.




These orders are one of the most effective methods of preventing litigants from pursuing their cases oppressively.




It is not necessary to establish that the litigant is vexatious; it is sufficient that there is a possibility that the litigant might abuse the processes of the court (Jolly v Jay & Jay).




In Ebert v Birch it was held that these orders should extend not only to the existing proceedings but should also apply to restrain specified anticipated proceedings by individuals.



[Latin: for "to wit" or "that is to say."]   "Viz.", which is the abbreviation of videlicet, is much more commonly used. It is often found in legal documents to advise that what follows provides more detail about a preceding general statement. For example: "The defendant committed adultery; viz., on April 15th, at approximately 10:30 pm, he had sexual intercourse with Ms Jane Smith." 



Village green


Land can be registered as a town or village green if it has been freely and openly used by local people for lawful sports and pastimes for 20 years.




In R v City of Sunderland ex parte Beresford [2003] HL, campaigners saved a sport arena at Washington from development after a three-year legal battle.


The residents had applied to Sunderland City Council in 2000 to register the sports arena as a green. The council rejected the application, despite the fact a poll showed that 89% of local people were in favour.




The campaigners lost an appeal to the High Court and lost in the Court of Appeal; but the Law Lords ruled that a sports arena could be registered as a town green.


They concluded the public had been encouraged to enjoy the recreational facilities of the sports arena "as of right".



An abbreviation of the Latin word videlicet. Short for "namely" or "that is to say." 

Vicarious liability 


When a person is held responsible for the tort of another even though the person being held responsible may not have done anything wrong. This is often the case with employers who are held vicariously liable for the damages caused by their employees. 



[Latin: man or husband]. Vir et uxor censentur in lege una persona is an old (and long abandoned in most countries) legal principle meaning that man and wife are considered to be one person in law.

Void or void ab initio 


Not legally binding. A document that is void is useless and worthless; as if it did not exist. For example, in many countries, contracts for immoral purposes are said to be "void": unenforceable and not recognized by the courts. A good example is a contract to commit a serious crime such as murder. 



The law distinguishes between contracts which are void and those which are voidable. Some contracts have such a latent defect that they are said to be void (see definition of "void" above).




Other have more minor defects to them and are voidable at the option of the party victimised by the defect. For example, contracts signed by a person when they are totally drunk are voidable by that person upon recovering sobriety. 

Voir dire 


A mini-hearing held during a trial on the admissibility of contested evidence. For example, a defendant may object to a claimant's witness. The court would suspend the trial, immediately preside over a hearing on the standing of the proposed witness, and then resume the trial with or without the witness, or with any restrictions placed on the testimony by the judge as a result of the voir dire ruling. In a jury trial, the jury would be excused during the voir dire.




The word "verdict" has a similar etymology. Kings in England spoke French for centuries after the Norman conquest in 1066, and more than 10,000 French words were absorbed into the language including many legal words used at court.

Volenti non fit injuria


[Latin: voluntary assumption of risk]. A defence in tort that means where a person engages in an event accepting and aware of the risks inherent in that event, then they can not later complain of, or seek compensation for an injury suffered during the event. This is used most often to defend against tort actions as a result of a sports injury. 

Voluntary bill of indictment


A way of getting a defendant to trial by judge and jury when the normal process has failed, or is not appropriate. 




Before 1993 the power to prefer Voluntary Bills rested with the grand jury, but they were abolished and the power was transferred to the High Court.




Normally, a defendant is brought to trial on indictment by being committal for trial, transferred, or sent for trial under section 51 Crime and Disorder Act 1998. 




A Voluntary Bill is an exceptional procedure before a High Court Judge, who gives 'consent'.




Typically, such a Bill would be applied for if the Crown thought that a refusal by magistrates to commit for trial was wrong in law.




It can also be used in other circumstances where there are good reasons to depart from the normal procedure or it is in the interests of justice to do so.  It may be that the prosecution do not wish to have committal proceedings for some good reason. A good reason might be where a defendant disrupts committal proceedings to the extent that they cannot be continued.




It may also be suitable when another defendant comes to light when committal proceedings have finished.  They have been used in 'supergrass' and terrorist cases




Since 1999 and the imminent commencement of the Human Rights Act such a Bill is not shrouded in secrecy and the defendant is now given copies of evidence and informed of the application.




Consent to a Voluntary Bill cannot be appealed nor is it subject to judicial review, it  is an alternative to judicial review.




When a person disclaims or renounces to a right that they may have otherwise had. Waivers are not always in writing. Sometimes a person's actions can be interpreted as a waiver. 



A guarantee given on the performance of a product or the doing of a certain thing. For example, many consumer products come with warranties under which the manufacturer will repair or replace any product that fails during the warranty period; the commitment to repair or replace being the "warranty". 



The abuse, destruction or permanent change to property by one who is merely in possession of it as in the case of a tenant or a life tenant



Being married. Has the same meaning as "matrimony." Used mostly to refer to illegitimate children as "born out of wedlock." 

Wilful fire raising


The Scottish equivalent of the English 'arson'. 



This is the legal document people use to bequeath (leave as a gift) money and property when they die. A written and signed statement, made by an individual, which provides for the disposition of their property when they die. (See also codicil and probate.)

Wire-tapping or phone tapping


An electronic surveillance device which secretly listens in and records conversations held over a phone line. It is usually only allowed with the permission of a judge and if it can be shown to be necessary for the solving of a serious crime. 

Without prejudice


A statements set onto a written document which qualifies the signatory as exempted from its content to the extent that they may be interpreted as containing admissions or other interpretations which could later be used against the person signing; or as otherwise affecting any legal rights of the person signing. A lawyer will often send a letter "without prejudice" in case the letter makes admissions which could later prove inconvenient to the client. 




"Without prejudice: Negotiations with a view to a settlement are usually conducted 'without prejudice' which means that the circumstances in which the content of those negotiations may be revealed to the court are very restricted." 


(Civil Justice Rules) 



The common definition of this word is a person who perceives an event (by seeing, hearing, smelling or other sensory perception). The legal definition refers to the court supervised recital of that sensory experience, in writing (deposition) or verbally (testimony). 

Wounding and inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)


Offences Against the Person Act 1861, s. 20


"Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously wound or inflict any grievous bodily harm upon any other person, either with or without any weapon or instrument, shall be guilty of [an offence], and being convicted thereof shall be liable to [imprisonment for not more than five years]." 




Wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm is triable either way. When tried on indictment it is a class 4 offence.




A verdict of assault occasioning actual bodily harm under the Offences against the Person Act 1861, s. 47, can be returned. 




Note: there is also a more serious form of Grievous Bodily Harm under Sec 18 Offences Against the Person Act 1861.




Wounding or causing Grievous Bodily Harm  with intent (GBH)


Offences against the Person Act 1861, s. 18


"Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously by any means whatsoever wound or cause any grievous bodily harm to any person with intent to do some grievous bodily harm to any person, or with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension or detainer of any person, shall be guilty of [an offence], and being convicted thereof shall be liable to [imprisonment] for life. "




Wounding or causing grievous bodily harm with intent is triable on indictment only. It is a class 4 offence.




Note: there is also a less serious form of Grievous Bodily Harm under Sec 20 Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

Words of limitation


Words in a conveyance or in a will which set the duration of an estate. If a will said "to Bob and his heirs", the words "and his heirs" were words of limitation because they indicate that Bob gets the land in fee simple and his heirs get no interest. 

Words of purchase


Words which specifically name the person to whom land is being conveyed. The property is conveyed to specifically and by name in a legal act such as a conveyance or will. This would preclude, for example, transfer as a result of intestacy



An official court document, signed by a judge or bearing an official court seal, which commands the person to whom it is addressed, to do something specific.


That "person" is typically either a sheriff (who may be instructed to seize property, for example) or a defendant (for whom the writ is the first notice of formal legal action. In these cases, the writ would command the person to answer the charges laid out in the suit, or else judgment may be made against them in their absence). 




Writs can be traced to Henry II who dispensed the King's justice without being physically present by the use of writs.  This was the origin of the common law.

Wrongful death


Tort, known as Lord Campbell's Act. A tort law action which claims damages from any person who, through negligence or direct act or omission, caused the death of certain relatives (e.g.. spouse, children or parent). These actions are commenced under special "wrongful death" statutes because under the common law, there is no right of action for survivors for their own loss as a result of someone's death. 

Wrongful dismissal


Being sacked from a job without an adequate reason or without any reason whatsoever.




Employees do not have a right to a job for life and can be dismissed for economic or performance reasons but they cannot be dismissed capriciously.




Most employment implies an employment contract, which may is supplemented by employment  legislation. Either could provide for certain procedures to be followed, failing which any sacking is wrongful dismissal and for which the employee could ask a court for damages against the employer. This is a tort law action. 


Young offender 


Young persons are treated differently than adult criminals and are tried in special youth courts. Criminal suspects between 10 and 17 inclusive.


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