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'Voir dire': You need Latin not French to understand this legal phrase

Language ‘false friends’ can confuse translation but a bit of Latin can help in this (court) case 

In one US television courtroom drama 'voir dire' referred to jury selection, but it is used differently in the UK legal system Pic: Ppictures / Shutterstock

Engrossed in an American television legal drama recently, my interest in the meticulously crafted plot (a typically slick Michael Connelly tale, since you ask) and the haughty, lawyer-led courtroom machinations, was abruptly halted by the appearance of French words.

One of the characters had begun explaining to would-be jurors the meaning of the legal term 'voir dire'. 

Sensing some pending personal 'learnings', as the Americans might say, I immediately reached for the télécommande (remote control) to pause, rewind and then Google search said phrase. 

Read more: Five French words that we use in English…and vice versa

Reference to US jury selection

In the context of the scene, the notion of 'voir dire' was referring to jury selection and how the court – or either the prosecution or defence team – appraises an individual's potential suitability to serve without prejudice or bias once they begin hearing evidence. 

This is especially relevant if a juror has a criminal record themselves.

Phrase used in UK for evidence admission

In the UK, voir dire is not used with regards to jury selection but rather to decide what kind of evidence – such as police confessions – can or cannot be presented by either side during a criminal trial.

Read more: Where can I go to obtain free advice about legal issues in France?

Anglo-Norman origins

Linguistically, voir dire is something of a ‘false friend’ – we all know that voir means to see, while dire means to say, so one might reasonably presume that voir dire is an obligation to jurors ‘to see, to speak’ or ‘say what you see’ or similar. 

But no, the phrase's Anglo-Norman origin points to the voir part of the phrase having stemmed from the Latin verum (truth) and not videre (to see). 

So it is actually imploring those sitting in judgement to tell the truth.

As for French legal terms on French dramas, keep an ear out for l'accusé (the accused), complice (accessory), acquitter (to acquit) and poursuivre (to prosecute).

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