In common law, a writ (Anglo-Saxon gewrit, Latin breve) is a formal written order issued by a body with administrative or judicial jurisdiction; in modern usage, this body is generally a court. Warrants, prerogative writs, and subpoenas are common types of writ, but many forms exist and have existed.
In its earliest form a writ was simply a written order made by the English monarch to a specified person to undertake a specified action; for example, in the feudal era a military summons by the king to one of his tenants-in-chief to appear dressed for battle with retinue at a certain place and time. An early usage survives in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia in a writ of election, which is a written order issued on behalf of the monarch (in Canada, by the Governor General and, in Australia, by the Governor-General for elections for the House of Representatives, or State Governors for State elections) to local officials (High Sheriffs of every county in the historical UK) to hold a general election. Writs were used by the medieval English kings to summon persons to Parliament, (then consisting primarily of the House of Lords) whose advice was considered valuable or who were particularly influential, and who were thereby deemed to have been created "barons by writ".
The writ was a unique development of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, and consisted of a brief administrative order, authenticated (innovatively) by a seal. Written in the vernacular, they generally made a land grant, or conveyed instructions to a local court. In the beginning, writs were the document issued by the King's Chancellor against a landowner whose vassal complained to the King about an injustice, after a first summon by the sheriff to comply had been deemed fruitless. William the Conqueror took over the system unchanged, but was to extend it in two ways: first, writs became mainly framed in Latin, not Anglo-Saxon; second, they covered an increasing range of royal commands and decisions. Writs of instruction continued to develop under his immediate successors, but it was not until Henry the Second that writs became available for purchase by private individuals seeking justice, thus initiating a vast expansion in their role within the common law.
Writs could take two main forms, open (patent) for all to read, and 'letters close' for one or more specified individuals alone.
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The development of writs as a means of commencing a court action was a form of "off-the-shelf" justice designed to enable the English law courts to rapidly process lawsuits by allocating each form of complaint into a standard category which could be dealt with by standard procedures. The complainant simply applied to the court for the writ most relevant to his complaint to be sent to the wrongdoer, which ordered him under royal authority to attend a royal court to answer for his actions. The development was part of the establishment of a Court of Common Pleas, for dealing with commonly made complaints by subjects of the crown, for example: "someone has damaged my property". The previous system of justice at the royal court of Chancery was tailor-made to suit each case and was thus highly time-consuming. Thus eventually the obtaining of a writ became necessary, in most cases, to have a case heard in one of the Royal Courts, such as the King's Bench or Common Pleas. Some franchise courts, especially in the Counties Palatine, had their own system of writs which often reflected or anticipated the common law writs. The writ was "served" on (delivered in person to) the wrongdoer and acted as a command that he should appear at a specified time and date before the court specified in the writ, or it might command some other act on the part of the recipient.
Where a plaintiff wished to have a case heard by a local court, or by an Eyre if one happened to be visiting the County, there would be no need to obtain a writ. Actions in local courts could usually be started by an informal complaint. However, if a plaintiff wished to avail himself of Royal — and by implication superior — justice in one of the King's courts, then he would need a writ, a command of the King, to enable him to do this. Initially for common law, recourse to the King's courts was unusual, and something for which a plaintiff would have to pay. For most Royal Courts, the writ would usually have been purchased from the Chancery, although the court of the Exchequer, being in essence another government department, was able to issue its own writs.
While originally writs were exceptional, or at least non-routine devices, Maitland suggests that by the time of King Henry II (1154-1189), the use of writs had become a regular part of the system of royal justice in England.
At first, new writs were drafted to fit each new situation, although in practice the clerks of the Chancery would use wording from previously issued writs, with suitable adjustments, often taken from reference books containing collections of forms of writ, much as in modern times lawyers frequently use fixed precedents or boilerplate, rather than re-inventing the wording of a new legal document. The problem with this approach was that a plaintiff's rights and available forms of action at his disposal, would be defined, and in most cases limited, by the limited variety of writs available to him. Thus the power to create new writs was akin to the power to create new rights, a form of extra-parliamentary legislation. Moreover, a writ, if one could be found fitting the plaintiff's case, provided the legal means to remove the dispute from the jurisdiction of the local court, often controlled by a lesser noble, and instead have it heard by the King's judges. The nobility thus saw the creation of new writs as an erosion of their influence.
Over time, opposition to the creation of new writs by the Chancery increased. For example, in 1256 a court was asked to quash a writ as "novel, unheard of, and against reason" (Abbot of Lilleshall v Harcourt (1256) 96 SS xxix 44). Ultimately in 1258 the King was forced to accept the Provisions of Oxford, which among other things, prohibited the creation of new forms of writ without the sanction of the King's council. New writs were created after that time only by the express sanction of Parliament and the forms of writ remained essentially static, each writ defining a particular form of action. It was the role and expertise of a solicitor to select on his client's behalf the appropriate writ for the proposed legal action. These were purchased from the court by payment of a fee. A barrister would then be hired by the solicitor to speak for his client in court.
With the abolition of the Forms of Action in 1832 and 1833, a profusion of writs was no longer needed, and one uniform writ came into use. After 1852 the need to state the name of the form of action was also abolished. In 1875 the form of writ was altered so that it conformed more to the subpoena used in the Chancery. A writ was a summons from the Crown, to the parties to the action, with on its back the substance of the action set out, together with a 'prayer' requesting a remedy from the court (for example damages). In 1980 the need for writs to be written in the name of the Crown was ended. From that time, a writ simply required the parties to appear..
Writs applied to claims that were to be heard in one of the courts which eventually formed part of the High Court of Justice. The procedure in a County Court, which was established by statute, was to issue a 'summons'.
In 1999 the Woolf Reforms unified most of the procedure of the Supreme Court and the County Court in civil matters. These reforms brought in the Civil Procedure Rules. Under these almost all civil actions, other than those connected with insolvency, are now commenced by the completion of a 'Claim Form' as opposed to the obtaining of a 'Writ', 'Originating Application', or 'Summons' (see Rules 7 and 8 of the Civil Procedure Rules).
In some Westminster systems, for example Canada and some other parliamentary systems, the phrase 'dropping the writ' refers colloquially to a dissolution of parliament and the beginning of an election campaign to form a new one. This phrase derives from the fact that to hold an election in such a system a writ of election must be issued on behalf of the monarch ordering the High Sheriffs of each county to set in motion the procedure for elections.
Early law of the United States inherited the traditional English writ system, in the sense of a rigid set of forms of relief that the law courts were authorized to grant. The All Writs Act authorizes United States federal courts to "issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law." However, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, adopted in 1938 to govern civil procedure in the United States district courts, provide that there is only one form of action in civil cases, and explicitly abolish certain writs by name. Relief formerly available by a writ is now normally available by a lawsuit (civil action) or a motion in a pending civil action. Nonetheless, a few writs have escaped abolition and remain in current use in the U.S. federal courts:
The situation in the courts of the various U.S. states varies from state to state but is often similar to that in the federal courts. Some states continue to use writ procedures, such as quo warranto, that have been abolished as a procedural matter in federal courts.
In an attempt to purge Latin from the language of the law, California law has for many years used the term writ of mandate in place of writ of mandamus, and writ of review in place of writ of certiorari.
The "prerogative" writs are a subset of the class of writs, those that are to be heard ahead of any other cases on a court's docket except other such writs. The most common of the other such prerogative writs are habeas corpus, quo warranto, prohibito, mandamus, procedendo, and certiorari.
The due process for petitions for such writs is not simply civil or criminal, because they incorporate the presumption of nonauthority, so that the official who is the respondent has the burden to prove his authority to do or not do something, failing which the court has no discretion but to decide for the petitioner, who may be any person, not just an interested party. In this they differ from a motion in a civil process in which the burden of proof is on the movant, and in which there can be a question of standing.
Under the Indian legal system, jurisdiction to issue 'prerogative writs' is given to the Supreme Court, and to the High Courts of Judicature of all Indian states. Parts of the law relating to writs are set forth in the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court, the highest in the country, may issue writs under Article 32 of the Constitution for enforcement of Fundamental Rights and under Articles 139 for enforcement of rights other than Fundamental Rights, while High Courts, the superior courts of the States, may issue writs under Articles 226. The Constitution broadly provides for five kinds of "prerogative" writs: habeas corpus, certiorari, mandamus, quo warranto and prohibition.