Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Writ: Definition in Law, Types, and Examples

What Is a Writ?

The term writ refers to a formal, legal document that orders a person or entity to perform or to cease performing a specific action or deed. Writs are drafted by judges, courts, or other entities that have administrative or judicial jurisdiction. These documents are part of common law and are often issued after a judgment is made, giving those involved in a suit the ability to carry out the judgment.

Writs can take many forms including summonses, writs of execution, writs of habeas corpus, warrants, and orders.

Key Takeaways

  • A writ is a formal, legal document that orders a person or entity to perform or to cease performing a specific action or deed.
  • Writs are drafted by courts or other entities with jurisdictional or legal power.
  • Warrants and subpoenas are two common types of writs.

How Writs Work

A document or order that directs any form of action from a court is generally known as a writ. Writs provide directions from an entity that holds jurisdictional or administrative power to another party.

Writs were developed as part of the English common law system and were primarily issued by Anglo-Saxon monarchs. These writs were written decrees that consisted of administrative commands written in layman's terms, largely authenticated by a royal seal at the bottom of the document. Upon issue, writs advised courts of land-granting conveyances. In some cases, they were also used to carry out judicial orders. While many writs were deemed open and read aloud in public, others were meant merely for the party or parties named.

Writs were developed over time as a way for authorities—legal and otherwise—to direct others to perform specific actions. This means that a modern-day writ provides an order from a higher to a lower court, from a court to an individual or other entity, or from a government agency to another party. The writ may command the named party to take some form of action or it may prevent that party from continuing to act or operate in a certain way. Present-day courts also use writs as a way to give extraordinary relief or to provide rights to appeal court decisions. In other cases, they give authorities such as sheriffs the right to make property seizures.

Types of Writs

Any direct order that is issued under authority is a writ. Warrants and subpoenas are two common types of writs. A warrant is a writ issued by a judge or magistrate that allows a sheriff, constable, or police officer to search a person or property—commonly known as a search warrant. Other warrants include an arrest warrant for an individual or individuals and an execution warrant allowing the execution of an individual who has been sentenced to death in a trial court.

A subpoena is a writ that compels a witness to testify or compels an individual or organization to produce evidence. Certain writs were eliminated because the relief that used to be available only through a writ is now accessible through a lawsuit or a motion in a civil action.

You may find relief by filing a lawsuit or a motion in civil court when getting a writ in your favor isn't an option.

Example of a Writ

A writ of execution is a court order that allows a piece of property to be transferred from one party to another. The plaintiff or injured party must commence legal action against the defendant in order to get this court order. Once the writ is drafted, the property is seized by a court official or member of law enforcement. The property is then transferred or sold, with the proceeds going to the plaintiff in cash.

Another example of a writ is the writ of seizure and sale is one example of a writ. When this writ is drafted by a court, it gives the petitioning party the right to take over ownership of a piece of property from someone else. In most cases, the petitioner is normally a creditor who is allowed to seize property from a borrower when the latter defaults on their financial obligation. Once seized, the property can be sold in order to recoup any losses by the creditor.

Writs of habeas corpus and certiorari are both used by courts for legal purposes, usually in favor of a defendant. A writ of habeas corpus can be used to evaluate the constitutionality of criminal convictions delivered by state courts. When the writ is issued, a public official is ordered to produce an imprisoned individual before the court to determine whether their confinement is legal. These writs are useful when people are imprisoned for long periods of time before they're actually convicted or charged with a crime. The writ of certiorari, on the other hand, is used by the U.S. federal courts. This writ is issued by the Supreme Court of the United States to a lower court to review that court's judgment for legal error or when no other avenue for appeal is available.

Where Does the Word "Writ" Come From?

The etymology of the word writ comes from Old English, as a general term denoting written matter, which is itself from the Old Germanic base of "write" (gewrit).

Where Did Writs Originate?

Writs developed in the middle ages in England, originally for the King's court to settle land ownership and title disputes or lodge complaints against landowners.

How Are Writs Used in American Law?

Initially, the American government adopted the writ system it inherited from the British. In 1798, the Congress passed the All Writs Act, which authorized the United States federal courts to "issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law." A 1938 Supreme Court ruling greatly curtailed the widespread use of writs in civil cases, though courts today may still use writs to issue injunctions. Note also that the writ of habeas corpus, usually used to test the legality of a prisoner's detention, continues to exist.

Article Sources
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  1. George Osborne Sayles. "The medieval foundations of England." The Medieval Foundations of England. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

  2. United States Legal Code. "Title 28: Writs (28 U.S.C. § 1651)."

  3. U.S. Federal Courts. "FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE," Page 83.

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