writ, in law, written order issued in the name of the sovereign or the state in connection with a judicial or an administrative proceeding. Usually the writ requires the person to whom the command is issued to report at a fixed time (the return day) with proof of compliance or a justification for disobedience. Apparently the exchequer was the first royal office in England to issue writs in transacting its business. The common-law courts, which administered justice for the king, found their required authorization to take a case in the original writ issued out of the chancery. The original writ (or original process) was essentially an order to the defendant to satisfy the plaintiff's demand or stand trial. Orders issued in the course of the trial (e.g., to produce a witness) were writs of mesne (middle) process. At the end of the case the successful plaintiff would be awarded a writ of execution (a type of final process) to carry the judgment into effect. The original writs were extremely limited in number. The Statute of Westminster (1285), which permitted the chancery to vary the terms of the existent writs slightly but forbade the issuance of new writs, in time worked great hardships. However, the principle, "no writ, no right" was at least partially overcome by the development of equity as a separate system of justice. By the 18th cent. the use of original writs fell into disuse and cases were initiated by service of a summons. Several of the prerogative writs (writs issued as a matter of sovereign right) still survive, notably habeas corpus and mandamus. The term writ usually is not applied to other types of compulsory process in current use.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.