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What Are Court Writs?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
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  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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Court writs are written court orders that compel some certain action. Some court writs are directed at individuals, while others target other courts. Court writs are facets of English common law, and are commonly used throughout Great Britain and other commonwealth countries, including Canada, Australia, and India. Writs are also used under United States law.

Originally, obtaining a court writ was the only way to beginning a lawsuit. In old English courts, one who wished to bring an action had to petition the court for a hearing, the court had to issue a writ, and the writ served as a sort of permission to present the case. Writs do not work this way anymore. Today, lawsuits are begun simply by filing a motion or complaint. The court’s permission is not required for filing, so long as all court rules are followed.

In the present day, courts use writs as a way of enforcing court rules and compelling swift movement of trials. Many of the most familiar court writs involve orders against people. An arrest warrant is a writ, for instance. Warrants are always granted by the court and essentially require that a certain person be arrested and tried for a named crime. A writ of restitution, which is commonly used as a means of eviction, compels local law enforcement to evict named tenants on order of the court.

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Subpoenas are also court writs. Courts will issue subpoenas to critical witnesses in a trial to compel them to appear and testify. A person who ignores a subpoena will usually be held in contempt of court, which can lead to obstruction of justice charges and even incarceration in some jurisdictions.

A writ of habeas corpus, Latin for “to have the body,” is a procedural remedy frequently applied in criminal law cases. A court will issue a writ of habeas corpus in order to investigate whether a prisoner was lawfully tried, and whether the conditions of his or her incarceration are legal. Most of the time, this involves the prisoner being brought into court and the original trial evaluated. A writ proceeding is not the same as a re-trial, as the issuing court is only looking for errors or oversights, not facts and truths.

Court writs may also be issued to other, typically lower, courts. Writs of mandamus are used to compel lower courts to remedy a faulty prior ruling. When a court reverses and remands a decision — that is, when a reviewing court sends a decision back for revision — the court is issuing a writ of mandamus. Writs of prohibition are used to cease litigation in multiple courts at once, or to prohibit one court from infringing on another’s jurisdiction. Related writs of error are used to bring mistakes in published opinions to the drafting court's attention.

Perhaps the best known of the court writs is the writ of certiorari, which a country’s highest court may use to review otherwise final rulings. When a Supreme or High Court grants a writ of certiorari, it is agreeing to hear arguments about whether or not a decision was decided correctly. Most of the time, arguments focus on a certain issue or legal interpretation. Unlike with a writ of mandamus, the lower court in a certiorari situation will not have a chance to revisit or retry the case itself. The final court’s ruling becomes the governing law.

Different kinds of court writs exist in different jurisdictions, and national laws interpret and apply the rules surrounding writs in a variety of ways. Some places allow judicial writs as well as court writs. A judicial writ is sometimes the same as a court order, but usually originates with a judge or other judicial officer acting in a professional capacity, rather than acting on behalf of the court. In all cases, though, writs are final, binding, and must be followed. Penalties almost always attach to unexecuted or poorly followed writs.

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