In English Law a writ was one of two things.
From mediaeval times onwards a claim could be brought before the court only
if the circumstances which had occurred exactly matched the relief the court
could give. Thus there was a writ of ejectment (for getting people off land)
and a writ of certiorari for quashing official verdicts. This system was
restrictive, and intentially so. Giving the courts more powers would give
the peasants more powers, which was not popular.
In more recent times (under the Rules of the Supreme Court, most recently
1981) a writ was the document with which a court case was commenced in the
High Court of England and Wales (as opposed to a 'summons' in the County
Court). The writ set out the names of the parties and the actions complained
of together with the 'prayer' (the request for a remedy, such as damages).
Following the plain English ethos of the Woolfe reforms the Civil Procedure
Rules did away with both writs and summonses and replaced them both with the
'Claim Form', which simply is the form to fill in if you want to make a claim.
Early U.S. law 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. In the United States federal court system, the All Writs Act (28 USC
1651) authorizes 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, which were 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 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 writ of habeas corpus, usually used to test the legality of a
prisoner's detention, has expressly been preserved. In the United
States federal courts, the writ is most often used to review the
constitutionality of criminal convictions rendered by state courts.
* By statute, the Supreme Court of the United States uses the writ of
certiorari to review cases from the United States Courts of Appeals or
from the state courts.
* In extraordinary circumstances, the United States Courts of Appeals can
use the common-law writs of mandamus and prohibition under the All
Writs Act to control proceedings in the District Courts.
* Some courts have held that in rare circumstances in a federal criminal
case, a United States District Court may use the common-law writ of
error coram nobis under the All Writs Act to set aside a conviction
when no other remedy is available.
* The United States District Courts normally follow state-court practice
with respect to certain provisional remedies and procedures for
enforcement of civil judgments, which may include writs of attachment
and execution, among others.
Certain other writs are available in theory in the United States federal
courts but are almost never used in practice. In modern times, the All Writs
Act is most commonly used as authority for federal courts to issue
injunctions to protect their jurisdiction or effectuate their judgments.
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. Early efforts
to replace writ of habeas corpus with writ of have the body never caught on.