Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Rex Non Potest Peccare Definition:

Latin: the king can do no wrong.

Related Terms: Rex Nunquam Moritur, Non Potest Rex Gratiam Facere Cum Injuria Et Damno Aliorum, Nullum Tempus Occurit Regi, Quando Jus Domini Regis Et Subditi Concurrunt, Jus Regis Praeferri Debet

This maxim has been the background of the legal principle, mostly now discarded, that a citizen could not sue the state for any alleged tort. On a regular basis in modern courts, Crown liability is being tested and teased into the common law rendering the maxim rex non potest peccare more and more into the dust-bin of law.

Even in monarchies, the Crown is no longer some divine creature called a monarch but is mostly managed by public servants very capable of negligence or tortious omission.

The evolution of the law in this area was discussed Justice Simon of the Supreme Court of Illinois in City of Shelbyville:

"The doctrine of sovereign immunity from suit, while justified in this manner, went under the slightly misleading but popular maxim of "the King can do no wrong" (rex non potest peccare), from which it was but a slight jump in logic to conclude that the King could not commit mistakes such as laches either. This conclusion also entered our common law in the form of the maxim on which the city relies here: "time does not run against the King" (nullum tempus occurrit regi).

"American courts in this century have viewed both doctrines as embodying a policy of protecting the public purse rather than as perpetuating philosophical notions of sovereign power and incapacity to err."

Writing in the Central Law Journal, Fred Peterson wrote:

"Rex non potest peccare - the king can do no wrong - has come down to us from Roman times. The sovereign is acting in a representative capacity; what he does is the act of his government.

"Like a judge, who, when acting officially, commits an error which may cause great loss or even deprive a citizen of liberty or life, yet he is not responsible for his mistakes and cannot be called personally to account for them, although he should act maliciously."

In his authority on Latin maxims, Herbert Broom suggests:

"It is an ancient and fundamental principle of the English constitution, that the king can do no wrong.

"But this maxim must not be understood to mean, that the king is above the laws, in the unconfined sense of those words and that every thing he does is of course just and lawful. It only means, first, that the sovereign, individually and personally, and in his natural capacity, is independent of and is not amenable to any other earthly power or jurisdiction, and that whatever may be amiss in the condition of public affairs is not therefore to be imputed to the king, so as to render him answerable for it personally to his people.

"Secondly, it means, that the prerogative of the Crown extends not to do any injury, because it is created for the benefit of the people, and, therefore, cannot be exerted to their
prejudice - it being a fundamental general rule...."

In an unreported decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal, CBC v R., Justice Brooke defered to these words:

"The maxim rex non potest peccare ... the King can do no wrong. It is not to be presumed that the king will do or sanction anything contrary to law, to which he is subject. But if an evil act is done, it, though emanating from the king personally, will be imputed to his ministers, for whose acts the king is in no way responsible."

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