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Vel non is a Latin phrase meaning “or not.” Generally, this term is not used, as it is considered a piece of unnecessary legal jargon; an attorney could just as easily say “or not,” rather than resorting to legal Latin, or could phrase something differently. People may encounter it in older legal documents from eras when Latin was more commonly in use, and occasionally, judges or attorneys become fond of this turn of phrase and start incorporating it into their work.
This term is used in settings where people want to discuss the existence, or lack thereof, of something of interest in a case. For example, a judge might say that a case is being held to determine the merits, vel non, of a claimant attempting to collect damages in connection with an act of alleged negligence. In other words, the court is meeting to decide if the plaintiff's claim that the respondent acted with negligence is accurate or not.
As an alternative to saying vel non, people may be encouraged to structure a sentence with “whether,” avoiding the “or not” construction altogether. A lawyer could pose a question to a witness asking whether the witness remembers filing a particular document, for example. Attorneys working on eliminating legal Latin and using plain language can compose statements and questions in a variety of ways to avoid using Latin jargon.
When reading documents where this phrase comes up, usually people can simply substitute “or not” for any instance of vel non to understand the meaning of the document. If the meaning still appears unclear, it may be necessary to consult an attorney to get more information. In the case of legal documents like suits filed against a person or requests for information, people have a right to have the document explained in plain language so they understand what it means and are cognizant of the implications. People should not sign to indicate acceptance of legal documents unless they understand them.
People fond of legal jargon may throw terms like vel non into regular spoken conversation, not just legal documents and statements, and this term also sometimes comes up in fiction surrounding the legal profession, such as mystery novels and thrillers featuring lawyers. These instances are usually the result of a desire to show off the acquisition of legal terminology, although they can also have their origins in an interest in etymology and wordplay.