What does "Ipso Facto" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Latin phrase ipso facto, meaning “by the fact itself,” is used in law to describe a situation where something occurs by nature, or as a direct consequence of an action. By contrast, something can be said to be ipso jure, meaning “by the law.” In an example of a situation where ipso facto can come into play, blind people are denied drivers' licenses on the grounds that the very fact of their vision impairments makes it impossible to drive.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

This term is not widely used in the legal community anymore, reflecting a turn away from legal Latin in many regions of the world. Many attorneys and courts prefer to use plain language rather than a smattering of Latin phrases and have been pushed to do so by people who want to encourage members of the legal profession to communicate in a way accessible to members of the public. An attorney saying “my client, being bankrupt, ipso facto cannot pay the damages” could just as easily say “because my client is bankrupt, it's not possible to pay the damages awarded in this case.”

One place where this phrase can turn up is in older legal texts and discussions of legal matters, from eras when Latin was more commonly used, and in books featuring lawyers. Some books invoke legal Latin to make readers feel more immersed in the world of law, while others may use it as a rhetorical device, suggesting, for example, that an attorney is pompous for relying on professional jargon rather than simply making statements in plain language.

When an attorney in court makes an argument on an ipso facto basis, the attorney starts by establishing the facts of a person's nature or situation, using these as grounds for showing that, by the very nature of the case, something must be true or untrue. An attorney mounting a defense could provide ample proof that a client was not at the scene of the crime, concluding with a statement like “my client was in London, and ipso facto could not have murdered someone in the Bahamas that very afternoon.”

Many references discussing common Latin phrases used in the legal community are available for people who are having trouble understanding legal documents or who are conducting research for works of fiction featuring lawyers. In some courts where a more formal atmosphere prevails, the use of Latin may be considered acceptable and is sometimes even expected.

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


@panda2006- Even if you know the jargon of the people you are dealing with, that doesn't guarantee you to understand. I thought I had traveled a lot, had done a lot of working and volunteering abroad, and knew my way around things like visa offices. Then I went to a country where the foreign police refused to speak anything but the native language. It was absolutely necessary that I get an interpreter, and even though I thought I knew what was happening, I was still left feeling pretty bewildered. Next to that, learning a few Latin terms seems pretty easy, "ipso facto" the rest of the speech is in your own language.


@JessicaLynn- I agree with you. We could all stand to learn some Latin, too. Even if you don't know Latin, I think most careers involve some sort of jargon- medicine, information technology, and even car mechanics all have their own whole language of terms.


@KaBoom - I actually think it's a little sad lawyers aren't using as much Latin anymore. I think it makes them sound much more official. I don't think there's any reason for them to dumb it down for the "average Joe."

And really, the average person might be smarter than you think. I for one think it would be pretty easy to figure out the meaning of "Ipso Facto" from contextual clues. I believe most people are taught to do that in elementary school.


I am glad that there is a trend among lawyers not to use these Latin phrases anymore. I don't know of many people besides lawyers that know what all these phrases mean!

I can imagine being involved in any kind of legal proceeding would be pretty stressful. Just imagine if you couldn't understand anything any of the lawyers were saying. Sounds pretty awful to me!

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