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What Does "Suo Moto" Mean?

Leigia Rosales
Updated May 16, 2024
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Many legal systems throughout the world retain the use of Latin words or phrases that originated centuries ago in the legal system of ancient Rome. The term "suo moto" is one of those terms. Literally translated, it means "on its own motion," and the term generally refers to a situation wherein a judge acts without request by either party to the action before the court.

Under normal proceedings before a court, a judge's role is to direct the proceedings and act on motions filed. When a party to a court case wants the judge to rule on an issue or make a decision regarding something pertinent to the case, he files a motion with the court. The opposing party then has an opportunity to respond to the motion before the judge rules on it. In some cases, a judge acts suo moto, meaning without one of the parties' asking her to do so.

One common example of when a judge may act in this way is when she decides that she does not have personal or subject matter jurisdiction over the case before him or her. In other words, the judge decides that she does not have the legal authority to preside over the case. In that case, the judge may make a motion, without either party asking him or her to do so, moving the case to another jurisdiction or dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction.

A judge may also act suo moto in a domestic case, such as a divorce or child custody case. Often, minor children are the subject of a domestic or family law case that comes before a judge. When the parents are battling over custody of the minor children and the judge feels that the best interest of the children is being overlooked, she may move to appoint a guardian ad litem. This person's role in the judicial system is to represent the best interests of the child throughout the proceedings.

In a criminal case, a judge may act on her own as well. She may decide that a jury instruction is necessary that was not requested by the parties, for example, or request that the jury members be polled to assure her that the verdict was unanimous.

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Leigia Rosales
By Leigia Rosales , Former Writer
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers. Her ability to understand complex topics and communicate them effectively makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.

Discussion Comments

By anon331970 — On Apr 26, 2013

Suo Moto is a term widely used in the Pakistani legal system and widely applied by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Whereas the history of this term indicates that a judge acts on his own motion when he feels that he is unable to decide a case impartially, and makes a request for transfer of the case to some other judge, in Pakistan, suo moto is used by the Supreme Court to initiate a trial of any case of public importance on its own motion.

By Sinbad — On Aug 18, 2011

@snickerish - I am not sure about how often the legal term of suo moto is actually used in the justice system as I myself do not have a career in that field; but had recently seen 'suo moto' in the news.

The reason the term was in the news was because the Supreme Court of another country, I think, India had exercised suo moto. Because it was in the news a ton, I would imagine that this is an uncommon thing to happen at the Supreme Court level but that is just my assumption.

By snickerish — On Aug 17, 2011

I am not overly knowledgable about the justice system so I was curious to know if the suo moto action typically occurs in more local or state courts versus the Supreme Court?

Leigia Rosales

Leigia Rosales

Former Writer

Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she...
Learn more
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