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The Latin phrase sua sponte means “of its own will,” and is used to describe a situation where a legal action is undertaken voluntarily, without request or prompting. Most commonly, the term refers specifically to decisions made by a court independently, not in response to specific requests from the parties involved in the case. Courts acting sua sponte must be able to show legal justification for their decisions.
There are a number of situations where a court may undertake an action of its own volition. A common reason is a case where a judge has a conflict of interest and refers the case to another judge in the interests of fairness. Another situation is one where a court refers a case because it does not have legal jurisdiction. In both instances, the judge acts with the best interests of the case in mind, taking steps to make sure the case is heard fairly and appropriately. If the judge did not refer the case and chose to hear it anyway, this could be grounds for having the outcome of the case thrown out on appeal.
Judges can also dismiss a case sua sponte if they feel there is not enough of a case to move forward, as in the instance of a frivolous suit. In these situations, judges must show how and why they are making the decision to dismiss the case, as the parties in the case have an interest in having the matter heard. Dismissals sua sponte are intended to keep cases out of the legal system when they are clearly not appropriate for court, with the goal of preventing high court expenses associated with cases that go nowhere.
When a judge makes a decision sua sponte, the parties involved do not need to be consulted, although they may be given warning that the judge is preparing to make a decision. The judge announces the decision in court and the parties are expected to abide by it. In most cases, the decision benefits all parties, as it is made in the interests of fairness and complying clearly with the letter and spirit of the law. When such motions are made, they are added to the court record for the particular case.
In a case where more than one judge is impaneled, the decision may be said to be nostra sponte, meaning “on our own will,” indicating the involvement of all of the judges in the decision.