Define: Writ Of Latitat

Writ Of Latitat
Writ Of Latitat
Quick Summary of Writ Of Latitat

The writ of latitat was a legal document used in England and Wales before 1832 in personal actions when the defendant could not be found. It was issued after the sheriff returned a bill of Middlesex with the notation of the defendant’s absence. The writ, named for its fictitious claim that the defendant was lurking in the county, was used to summon individuals to answer in the king’s bench. It was directed to the sheriff of the county where the defendant was believed to be hiding. However, the writ of latitat was abolished by the Process in Courts of Law at Westminster Act of 1832 (St. 2, Will. 4, ch. 39).

What is the dictionary definition of Writ Of Latitat?
Dictionary Definition of Writ Of Latitat

In the past, when a defendant in a personal lawsuit could not be located by the sheriff on Middlesex County, a writ of latitat was used. This legal document was issued to summon the defendant to appear on the king’s bench. It was called latitat because it was believed that the defendant was hiding in a different county. However, the writ was abolished in 1832 by the Process in Courts of Law at Westminster Act.

Full Definition Of Writ Of Latitat

The Writ of Latitat is a historical legal instrument rooted in English common law. Its primary purpose was to command the sheriff to apprehend a defendant who was allegedly in hiding or had absconded to avoid being served with a court process. The writ played a significant role in the procedural mechanisms of the King’s Bench, one of the principal courts of common law in England. This overview examines the origins, development, application, and eventual obsolescence of the Writ of Latitat, providing a comprehensive understanding of its place in British legal history.

Historical Origins

The Writ of Latitat emerged in the medieval period, specifically within the jurisdiction of the King’s Bench. Initially, the court primarily handled matters of the crown, including serious criminal cases and disputes involving significant sums of money or issues of national importance. The court had the authority to hear cases from across the realm, but it needed a mechanism to compel defendants to appear before it, especially those who might be evading legal proceedings.

The term “latitat” itself is derived from Latin, meaning “he lies hidden.” This reflects the writ’s purpose: to address situations where a defendant was not easily found to be served with a writ of capias ad respondendum, which required their appearance in court. The Writ of Latitat was thus issued on the presumption that the defendant was hiding to avoid legal confrontation.

Legal Framework and Application

The issuance of a Writ of Latitat involved several procedural steps. Firstly, a plaintiff who sought to initiate an action in the King’s Bench would file a praecipe, essentially a request for the court to issue a writ. If the defendant could not be served through ordinary means, the court could then issue the Writ of Latitat.

The writ was addressed to the sheriff of the county where the defendant was believed to be hiding. It commanded the sheriff to apprehend the defendant and ensure their appearance before the King’s Bench. The writ stated that the defendant was “latitat et discurrit,” meaning “lies hidden and wanders about.” This language implied that the defendant was actively evading legal proceedings.

The effectiveness of the Writ of Latitat lay in its broad reach. Since the King’s Bench had nationwide jurisdiction, the writ could be executed anywhere within the realm. This was particularly advantageous in cases where defendants moved frequently or sought refuge in distant or obscure locations.

Procedural Evolution and Significance

Over time, the procedural application of the Writ of Latitat evolved, reflecting changes in legal practices and societal conditions. One significant development was its use in civil cases. Initially designed for criminal matters, the writ became a tool for civil litigants to compel defendants to appear in court. This expansion of its use highlighted the adaptability of the common law system.

The procedural flexibility of the Writ of Latitat also meant that it could be used in conjunction with other writs. For instance, if a defendant failed to respond to a writ of capias, a Writ of Latitat could be issued to reinforce the command to appear in court. This layered approach ensured that the court maintained its authority and could effectively manage its caseload.

Furthermore, the Writ of Latitat was instrumental in shaping the jurisdictional boundaries between the King’s Bench and other courts, such as the Court of Common Pleas. By extending the reach of the King’s Bench, the writ contributed to the centralization of legal authority and the standardization of legal procedures across England.

Criticisms and Legal Challenges

Despite its utility, the Writ of Latitat was not without its critics and legal challenges. One major criticism was that the writ could be abused, particularly by plaintiffs seeking to harass defendants or exert undue pressure. The broad presumption that a defendant was hiding to evade the process was sometimes seen as a convenient fiction to justify aggressive legal tactics.

Legal reformers and some members of the judiciary raised concerns about the potential for misuse. They argued that the writ’s reliance on the presumption of evasion could lead to unfair treatment of defendants, especially those who might be unaware of the proceedings against them. Additionally, the writ’s expansive reach could result in jurisdictional overreach, infringing on the rights of defendants to be tried within their local jurisdictions.

These criticisms prompted calls for procedural safeguards to prevent abuse. Some proposals included stricter requirements for demonstrating that a defendant was indeed evading process before issuing a Writ of Latitat. Others suggested limiting the writ’s use to specific types of cases where the risk of evasion was particularly high.

Decline and Obsolescence

The decline of the Writ of Latitat can be attributed to several factors, including legal reforms and changes in societal and procedural norms. The writ’s prominence began to wane with the development of more sophisticated mechanisms for ensuring the appearance of defendants in court. For example, the establishment of regularized postal services and improved methods of communication made it easier to serve the process without resorting to assumptions of evasion.

Additionally, legal reforms in the 19th and early 20th centuries aimed at modernizing the judicial system and reducing procedural complexities further diminished the need for the Writ of Latitat. The Judicature Acts of 1873-1875, which reorganized the English court system and streamlined legal procedures, played a significant role in rendering the writ obsolete. These reforms emphasized fairness, efficiency, and accessibility in legal proceedings, reducing the reliance on archaic and potentially abusive instruments like the Writ of Latitat.

Comparative Perspectives and Legacy

The Writ of Latitat’s legacy can be seen in the broader context of common law jurisdictions. Similar mechanisms existed in other countries influenced by English common law, such as the United States and Canada. However, these jurisdictions also moved towards more modern and equitable methods of ensuring court appearances, often drawing on the experiences and criticisms of the English system.

In contemporary legal practice, the principles underlying the Writ of Latitat—namely, the need to compel defendants to participate in legal proceedings—are addressed through more balanced and transparent means. Procedural rules now emphasize direct and verifiable methods of service, ensuring that defendants are properly notified and given the opportunity to respond.

The historical significance of the Writ of Latitat lies in its illustration of the evolution of legal processes and the continual adaptation of the judicial system to changing societal needs. It serves as a reminder of the challenges and complexities involved in administering justice and the importance of procedural safeguards to protect the rights of all parties involved.


The Writ of Latitat represents a fascinating chapter in the history of English common law. From its origins as a tool to compel the appearance of elusive defendants to its eventual obsolescence due to legal reforms and societal changes, the writ reflects the dynamic nature of the legal system. While no longer in use, the Writ of Latitat’s legacy endures in the principles of procedural fairness and adaptability that continue to shape modern judicial practices. Understanding its historical context and development provides valuable insights into the evolution of legal processes and the ongoing quest for justice and equity in the legal system.

Writ Of Latitat FAQ'S

A Writ of Latitat is a legal document issued by a court that allows a plaintiff to initiate a lawsuit against a defendant whose whereabouts are unknown.

A Writ of Latitat can be used when a plaintiff wants to sue a defendant but does not know their current location or address.

Once the court issues a Writ of Latitat, it is served to the defendant’s last known address. If the defendant fails to respond or cannot be located, the plaintiff can proceed with the lawsuit and obtain a default judgment.

Yes, a Writ of Latitat can be used in any civil lawsuit where the defendant’s whereabouts are unknown.

Yes, there is usually a time limit for serving a Writ of Latitat, which varies depending on the jurisdiction. It is important to consult with an attorney to ensure compliance with the specific rules in your jurisdiction.

Yes, a defendant can challenge a Writ of Latitat by providing evidence that they were not properly served or that their whereabouts were known to the plaintiff.

If a defendant is located after a Writ of Latitat is issued, they can file a motion to set aside the default judgment and request an opportunity to defend themselves in the lawsuit.

No, a Writ of Latitat is not applicable in criminal cases. It is only used in civil lawsuits.

Yes, a Writ of Latitat can be used internationally, but the process may vary depending on the country’s legal system and any applicable international treaties.

No, a Writ of Latitat is only used to initiate a lawsuit. Once a judgment is obtained, separate legal procedures are required to enforce and collect the judgment.

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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: 9th June 2024.

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