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What is Quo Warranto?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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The Latin phrase “quo warranto,” meaning “which warrant,” is often translated as “by what authority.” The term refers to a challenge to a person or entity on the grounds that authority is being abused or that there is a question as to where the person or entity's authority is derived from and whether or not it is legitimate. Such challenges are relatively unusual but there is room for them under many legal systems.

The origins of the quo warranto lie in common law, and appear to date back to the 1200s. These challenges were originally used by King Edward I, who utilized challenges to authority to attempt to disentangle some of the results of the political intrigues common in medieval England. The history of some offices and property titles had become muddied, and Edward I wanted to challenge the rights to hold these offices and properties on the grounds that they may have been improperly held.

Over time, the right to challenge in similar situations was extended to all and enshrined in the legal systems of many nations. An individual person can make a quo warranto demand if there is a belief that an office is being abused, neglected, or improperly held. Likewise, attorneys in a case can issue a challenge to authority. This is most commonly seen in civil cases involving corporations, in which an attorney asks whether or not a corporation is acting within the scope of its powers.

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This legal order is not just a demand to show the origins of someone's authority. When a quo warranto demand is made, it can put a temporary halt to activities until a person or entity has established that these activities are allowed. Thus, for example, if there is a belief that someone is holding political office illegally, the person in that office could not undertake any activities such as issuing orders until his or her right to authority had been established.

Not all nations permit people to issue quo warranto challenges. Globally, legal systems are quite varied and many are in a state of flux as new laws are passed and precedents are established. Usually a lawyer will know if a quo warranto challenge is legally allowable in a given jurisdiction and can provide a client with advice about how and when to use it, in addition to advising clients about whether or not it would be an effective tactic.

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