In law, a writ is basically a written document issued by a court to some lower court or other official agency or office, normally requiring that party to take a specified action, to avoid taking some sort of prohibited action, or, in rarer cases, granting access to something. These sorts of documents originated in English common law, and are most commonly used in courts that follow that tradition, particularly the United States but also India, Australia, and other current and former Commonwealth nations. There are many different varieties and formats, some of which are specific to certain courts or legal systems and others that are more universal. Not all carry the “writ” name, either; warrants are often grouped into this category, for instance, as are subpoenas. The implications of what the documents can do normally vary as well. What all have in common is that they’re documents, from a court, that compel or permit some named action of some official actor.
Court-issued documents come in many forms. Writs are usually most unique when it comes to their addressees: most of the time, a document won’t carry this name unless it’s intended for an official audience. They aren’t normally issued to individuals in their personal capacities, for instance, though people can often request them. Some of the most common examples include habeas corpus, through which a person can ask a court for relief from what he or she believe to be unlawful detention; documents focusing on garnishment also allow for a court to order the seizure of property that is in the possession of one party but belongs to another, normally the government or some government agency. This happens often when a court issues a judgment in favor of a debtor.
Sometimes courts will compose and issue these documents on their own, normally as a matter of course after a judgment has been rendered. They can also normally be requested, usually through a petition. The petition process varies from place to place and even from court to court, and are usually submitted by attorneys or other trained legal counselors.
Common Law Origins
In England, the usage these tools as methods of court-ordered activity began in the times when common law was the law of the land. Originally, the document was a letter from an authority with jurisdiction, indicating that some action needed be taken. Back then, a petition had to be issued so that a case could even be heard by the royal courts. The Woolf Reforms, passed in 1999, replaced the use of these form to start a civil action with a more simplified claim form. The goal and core function is about the same in most cases.
In U.S. Law
The United States also uses this form of court documentation as a means of effecting certain actions or changes, and originally the process mirrored that of England’s courts — although over time the two systems' uses evolved in different ways. In the U.S., the All Writs Act allowed federal courts in the country to issue the documents and orders necessary to aid their jurisdictions. In 1938, however, the Federal Rules and Civil Procedures abolished certain formats in certain cases, such that certain relief is now available instead through lawsuits and motions of the court in pending cases.
The Indian legal system also uses writs. In fact, the country's constitution awards its courts the right to use them. In this country, one of the most common is that related prohibition, in which a higher court prohibits a lower court from taking a case, stating that the court does not have appropriate jurisdictional power. The writ of certiorari is another common one, and directs a lower court to send any records pertaining to a case to a higher court for review. That same name is used in the U.S. when the Supreme Court grants petitioner’s requests to rehear a case from another court.