What does "Contra Legem" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Contra legem is a Latin phrase meaning “contrary to the law.” This term is used in a specific legal context to discuss court decisions that appear to contradict or defy the laws governing a particular legal controversy. Courts are allowed to reach such decisions under certain circumstances. When a decision is Contra legem, this is noted in the court record, and the judge's opinion will provide more information about how and why the decision was reached.

Judges can make a contra legem decision in the interest of fairness.
Judges can make a contra legem decision in the interest of fairness.

In some cases, a court is asked to consider the issue of fairness first, and the law second. There may be cases where enforcing the law strictly would be unfair, violating the premise of the legal system as a place where people can seek equitable remedies. Courts can be empowered to act in the interests of fairness and may be allowed to reach a contra legem decision at the discretion of the judge.

Courts proceed carefully with such cases, as inconsistencies in the legal system can weaken it over time. Judges cannot choose to defy the law at any time they choose, but may only make a contra legem in cases where they are authorized to do so and can come up with a solid argument for the decision reached. Even if the decision runs against the law relevant to the matter at hand, it should generally embrace the spirit of the law.

This can come up in a variety of contexts. If a court is not empowered to make this kind of legal decision, a contra legem judicial opinion can potentially be challenged and thrown out. The level of discretion permitted to judges is variable and judges are usually encouraged to err on the conservative side when possible. In cases where the conservative answer in keeping with the law would potentially create an unjust imbalance, the judge can set out a case for a decision running contrary to the law.

While this term can also be translated as “against the law” in the literal sense, it is important to avoid confusing it with general violations of the law, such as committing illegal acts. Contra legem has a very specific legal meaning and context, and is an example of legal Latin with a purpose; it is not just a formal way of saying something that could easily be said in a common language. In legal systems where the use of Latin is increasingly discouraged, terms like this may still be considered allowable, as they are necessary to express key concepts.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@watson42- Latin legal terms frustrate me, though, because it makes me feel even less knowledgeable in those situations.

My family was involved in a civil case a few years ago, and understanding what went on was hard enough without Latin. I suppose if I'd learned it in school it would help, but it still annoys me.


I don't know much Latin, but I like the use of it in many situations to explain things; there is just something about some languages that explains things better than English can. Another example that comes to mind is German, with words like "schadenfreude". There is no English Equivalent for that, and so we ought to use the original. It's also a good case for why we all ought to learn some of multiple languages.

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