What were the legis actiones? How did they work? Why and when were they abolished?

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Civil Law

Karen Forbes


Essay: What were the legis actiones? How did they work? Why and when were they abolished?

Tutor Josef Wolff

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What were the legis actiones? How did they work? Why and when were they abolished?

The ‘legis actiones’ are described as the ‘actions-at-law’ or the ‘actions in the law’. The legis actiones were the procedures put in place for a Roman citizen to bring about a form of litigation, or civil procedure. They originated around the time of the Twelve Tables and eventually became obsolete following the introduction of the formulae system. In order to define exactly what the legis actiones were the civil procedure of this time has to be examined. By describing how the legis actiones worked in the three parts of civil procedure, namely the summons, the trial and the execution, a conclusion will be drawn on what exactly the legis actiones were. Following on from this the reasons for their abolition will be discussed. Firstly the summons, as the initial stage of civil procedure will be discussed.

It has been stated that “the legis actiones were composed from the Twelve Tables and gave people the power to litigate by themselves”. However, the first step in any litigation procedure was for the plaintiff to summon the defendant to court. This was generally done publicly and orally in the form of ‘in ius vocatio’ through which the plaintiff outlined the reasons he was summoning the defendant before the magistrate. The defendant could not refuse and if he did, the plaintiff was entitled to use by-standers as witnesses and physically force the defendant to appear before the magistrate. The only way in which the defendant could avoid the plaintiff’s summons was by using a vindex. A vindex acted as a guarantor for the defendant, guaranteeing his appearance before the magistrate when required. The vindex had to be of the same standing as the defendant as set down by the Twelve Tables. Although, there is uncertainty over whether or not a vindex could assume the defendants liability or if he merely acted as guarantor for the defendant. At this point the two parties were required to appear  before the magistrate in a trial.

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The trial was separated into two stages, the first being the preliminary hearing before the magistrate who from 367BC was the Praetor, and the second stage being held before the iudex (a judge). At the preliminary hearing the two parties appeared together before the Praetor, this first stage was in iure. The object of which was to define exactly what type of action the plaintiff was requiring. The plaintiff was required to set out his claim in specific terms or words. The defendant (providing he was in dispute of the claim)  then replied in specific terms. These claims and counter-claims ...

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