Define: Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus
habeas corpus
Video Guide For Habeas Corpus
Quick Summary of Habeas Corpus

Latin for “You have the body.” A prisoner files a petition for writ of habeas corpus in order to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continue to hold him. If the judge orders a hearing after reading the writ, the prisoner gets to argue that his confinement is illegal. These writs are frequently filed by convicted prisoners who challenge their conviction on the grounds that the trial attorney failed to prepare the defence and was incompetent. Prisoners sentenced to death also file habeas petitions challenging the constitutionality of the state death penalty law. Habeas writs are different from and do not replace appeals, which are arguments for reversal of a conviction based on claims that the judge conducted the trial improperly. Often, convicted prisoners file both.

What is the dictionary definition of Habeas Corpus?
Dictionary Definition of Habeas Corpus

(hay-bee-us core-puss) n. Latin for “you have the body,” it is a writ (court order) which directs the law enforcement officials (prison administrators, police or sheriff) who have custody of a prisoner to appear in court with the prisoner to help the judge determine whether the prisoner is lawfully in prison or jail.

The writ is obtained by petition to a judge in the county or district where the prisoner is incarcerated, and the judge sets a hearing on whether there is a legal basis for holding the prisoner. Habeas corpus is a protection against illegal confinement, such as holding a person without charges when due process obviously been denied, bail is excessive, parole has been granted, an accused has been improperly surrendered by the bail bondsman, or probation has been summarily terminated without cause.

Historically called “the great writ,” the renowned scholar of the Common Law, William Blackstone, called it the “most celebrated writ in English law.”

It may also be used as a means to contest child custody and deportation proceedings in court. The writ of habeas corpus can be employed procedurally in federal district courts to challenge the constitutionality of a state court conviction.

Full Definition Of Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus is a writ of command that a person held guilty of a crime must present before a judge. It literally means “you have the body.” An individual who is being held can petition the court for the writ to force the court to bring them before a judge to determine if the government has the legal right to continue to hold them. The Constitution allows for the suspension of the right to habeas corpus only “in cases of rebellion or invasion of public safety.”

The founding fathers believed the concept of Habeas Corpus was necessary to eliminate the ability of the government to hold its citizens, thus preserving their “liberty, justice, and democracy.” This right was enshrined in the very first article of the United States’ Constitution and encompasses the idea that citizens have the fundamental right not to be held by the executive branch without cause. The right of Habeas Corpus only applies to the United States’ citizens who are not determined to be “enemy combatants.”

Some political pundits have questioned if the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay should be considered “enemy combatants” and whether their rights are being infringed. Although the detainees are not U.S. citizens, there have been charges that they are being held illegally because the U.S. government has not officially charged them with a crime but continues to detain them indefinitely.

Habeas Corpus FAQ'S

Habeas corpus is a legal principle that protects individuals from being unlawfully detained or imprisoned. The term “habeas corpus” is Latin for “you shall have the body.” Essentially, it is a recourse in law through which a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment to a court and request that the court determine whether the detention is lawful.

The writ of habeas corpus requires that a person under arrest or detention be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person’s release, unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention. This principle is fundamental to the protection of individual liberty and serves as a safeguard against arbitrary detention by the state. It ensures that individuals have the right to challenge the legality of their imprisonment and that they cannot be held indefinitely without proper legal justification.

Habeas corpus has a long history and is considered a cornerstone of the rule of law in many legal systems around the world, including those based on common law principles. It has been enshrined in various legal documents and constitutions to protect the rights of individuals against unlawful detention or imprisonment.

The term “habeas corpus” is Latin, and it translates to “you shall have the body.” In a legal context, it refers to a legal action or writ by means of which individuals can seek relief from unlawful detention or imprisonment. The “body” in this context refers to the body of the person who is being detained. The essence of habeas corpus is the right of a detained individual to have their case brought before a court or judge, who will determine the lawfulness of the detention and order the release of the individual if the detention is found to be unlawful. So, in essence, “habeas corpus” means the right to challenge unlawful detention by bringing the detained individual’s body before a court.

The purpose of Habeas Corpus is to safeguard individual liberty and prevent arbitrary or unlawful detention by ensuring that authorities have valid legal grounds for holding someone in custody.

In UK law, Habeas Corpus allows individuals who believe they are being unlawfully detained to apply to the High Court for a writ of Habeas Corpus. The court then examines the reasons for detention and determines whether it is lawful.

Any person who believes they are being unlawfully detained or held in custody without legal justification can apply for Habeas Corpus in the UK. This may include individuals detained by the police, immigration authorities, or other government agencies.

Habeas corpus may be granted if the court finds that the detention is unlawful, such as if there was no valid legal authority for the detention, the detention exceeds the lawful powers of the authority, or the detention violates the individual’s fundamental rights.

If Habeas Corpus is granted, the court may order the immediate release of the individual from custody or detention. Alternatively, the court may order a hearing to determine the legality of the detention and any further action required.

In certain circumstances, such as during times of national emergency or war, Habeas Corpus may be suspended by the government through legislation or proclamation. However, such suspensions are rare and subject to strict legal and constitutional limitations.

No, habeas corpus is different from bail. Habeas Corpus concerns the legality of detention or imprisonment, while bail involves releasing an individual from custody pending trial or other legal proceedings, usually upon posting a bond or other security.

Yes, Habeas Corpus can be used in immigration cases to challenge the detention of individuals by immigration authorities. Individuals detained under immigration laws have the same right to seek habeas corpus as those detained by other authorities.

Habeas Corpus protects individual rights in the UK by providing a legal mechanism to challenge and remedy unlawful detention or imprisonment, thereby upholding the principles of due process, fairness, and the rule of law. It serves as a fundamental safeguard against arbitrary state action and abuse of power.


This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 13th April 2024.

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