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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

The Legal Genealogist is back in the air today, heading away from the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute (MAAGI) in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and towards the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed) in Washington, D.C.

The fact that the first of these institutes is at the Allen County Public Library and the second at the National Archives means it’s a lot easier to take on these teaching tasks…

But it also means that time to write blog posts is in short supply during this frenetic institute season, and since nobody wants the blog to go silent, we’re going to have some fun instead with legal alphabet soup.

So, for today, D is for “DE MINIMIS”.

And, specifically, de minimis in the way you’re going to see it in court opinions, where judges explain why they did what they did in particular cases. As part of the phrase “de minimis non curat lex.”

The phrase means that “the law does not care for, or take notice of, very small or trifling matters. The law does not concern itself about trifles.”1

What kind of trifles? Well, the definition goes on, “error in calculation of a fractional part of a penny will not be regarded” and “the law will not, in general, notice the fraction of a day.”2

This doesn’t mean that just because a case involves a small amount of harm it won’t get the attention of the court. As one commentator explained, “theft is theft, whether it concerns the felonious abstraction of a loaf of bread of a thousand pounds. … (E)very legal wrong, however slight, has its appropriate remedy, and every right, no matter what value or extent, may be enforced.”3

So courts have refused to apply the concept of too small to be noticed to claims that someone was entitled to a public office that only paid $8 a month4 or that someone took a horse’s reins, worth $3-4, even though the person claimed it was a joke and offered to give them back.5

Thus going to show that courts and judges often don’t have a sense of humor.

On the other hand, there’s proof positive that some lawyers do have a sense of humor:

The clergy gather pence, halfpence,
The doctors scruples, grain dispense,
But lawyers hold it an offense
With trifles small one’s soul to vex:
De minimis non curat lex.

But if there is a hair to split,
And handsome fees for doing it,
There’s not a lawyer wants the wit —
Especially to take the cheques:
De minimis non curat lex.

You wish a contract or a will,
Five reams of foolscap they will fill,
While you must pay their verbose skill —
When lawyers little things annex:
De minimis non curat lex.

As men beat out a grain of gold
To cover areas untold,
Or make it miles of wire unrolled,
So law treats points — the merest specks :
De minimis non curat lex.

If vested interests are small,
No heed is paid to them at all;
Unless they raise their voice and bawl,
Like those of beer and XXX:
De minimis non curat lex.

Thus everything now goes by size —
Political majorities,
The sheep and pigs that take a prize —
The reason need no man perplex :
De minimis non curat lex.6

No de minimis sense of humor there, I’d say…


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 329, “de minimis.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. John Trayner, Latin Maxims and Phrases…, 4th ed. (Edinburgh : William Green & Sons, 1894), 143; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 July 2017).
  4. State ex rel. Greene v. Owen, 125 N.C. 212, 213-214 (1899).
  5. Wartman v. Swindell, 54 N.J.L. 589 (E. & A. 1892).
  6. “De Minimis,” 23 American Law Review (Jan-Feb 1889): 269-270; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 July 2017), citing Journal of Jurisprudence.
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