Writs Law and Legal Definition

Writ is a formal written order issued by a court in the name of the state or other competent authority commanding a party to whom it is addressed to do something or abstain from doing something.

Courts issued writs under common law to allow people to proceed with a legal action. Writs are also used to direct other courts and public authorities. Courts generally use writs to grant extraordinary relief to party, to grant the right of appeal, or to grant the sheriff the right for seizure of property. Common law writs are not in use in the U.S. civil law.

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." [28 USCS § 1651]. However, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs 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.

Courts provide extraordinary writs only when other remedies have failed. Examples of these types of writs are:

  • Writ of Habeas Corpus: (Latin, "produce the body") This writ is used to determine the legality of a person’s detention. It is a legal document by the court ordering anyone, who is officially detaining the petitioner, to bring the person before the court. Then the court would decide whether the detention is unlawful. In U.S federal courts, the writ is mostly used to review the constitutionality of criminal convictions rendered by state courts.
  • Writ of Mandamus: (Latin, "we command") This writ directs a public official or a government department to take an action. Court may issue the writ to any executive branch, legislative branch, and any lower courts to take particular actions ordered by the court.
  • Writ of Prohibition: This writ directs a public authority not to take a specified action. Mostly the writ is issued by appellate courts to lower courts, ordering the lower courts to abstain from taking a proposed action.
  • Writ of Certiorari: (Latin, "informed") This writ is issued by an appellate court. The appellate court has discretionary power to hear an appeal from lower court. Decision of lower court will remain the same when the writ is denied. The Supreme Court of the U.S. issues the writ of certiorari to review cases from the U.S. courts of appeals or from the state courts. As per USCS Supreme Ct R 10 the review on a writ of certiorari is a matter of discretion. The writ is granted only when the U.S. Supreme Court feels that the subject matter is of imperative public importance as to justify deviation from normal appellate practice and to require immediate determination in the Court.
  • Writ of Quo warranto: This writ is issued when the state challenges the legality of using a public office, or other right that can be held or used under authority of the state. For example, writ of quo warranto can be used to remove a person holding an office illegally. 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 of quo warranto that have been abolished as a procedural matter in federal courts.