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A Brief Overview of What Does a Writ of Mandamus Mean

What Does a Writ of Mandamus Mean?
It is the discretion of the court to issue a prerogative writ to do justice in extraordinary circumstances. Here's a brief insight into the various aspects of the writ of mandamus, which is a prerogative writ.
Sonia Nair
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
In some regions, the writ of mandamus is called a writ of mandate or mandate.
A writ can be described as a judicial remedy in the form of an order from a court. There are different types of writs, like writs of rights, prerogative writs, etc. While issuance of writs of rights is a matter of right, the court has the discretion to grant or not grant a prerogative writ. Usually, a prerogative or extraordinary writ is granted when the court is convinced that other remedial measures have failed to provide relief to the petitioner.

Earlier, different types of writs were issued under the common law, and they were used for a wide range of legal actions. Nowadays, only a few are used in the U.S. civil law. Others have been replaced with simple civil actions. Habeas corpus, mandamus, certiorari, prohibition, and mandamus are some of the extraordinary writs that are granted by courts in the United States. Given below is a brief overview about the writ of mandamus.
What Does a Writ of Mandamus Mean?
In Latin, the term mandamus means 'we order.' A writ of mandamus is the command or order issued by a superior court to an inferior court or a governmental body to perform an official duty, or to correct an abuse of discretion. According to Black's law dictionary, mandamus is defined as, "A writ issued by a court to compel performance of a particular act by a lower court or a governmental officer or body, to correct a prior action or failure to act."
Legal Right: Usually, a writ of mandamus is sought when the respondent failed to act in the first place, or acted in an illegal or unreasonable manner to the detriment of the petitioner. The aggrieved person must have a legal right that is denied by the respondent; by not performing an act that he is assigned to do officially or by doing it improperly. The right in question must be judicially enforceable.

Statutory Duty: The respondent cannot be forced to do something which does not come under the ambit of his official duty, which is public in nature. So, the writ of mandamus is issued against judicial bodies and public authorities, who are assigned with statutory duties. In other words, this writ cannot be sought against private individuals. However, the writ can be granted against a company, which is formed under a statute. The writ can be sought against private individuals who are assigned with duties created by statutes.

Examples: A has filed a visa application and the consulate officials delayed decision on the application for a long time, without any reason. A can file a petition seeking a writ of mandamus, directing the consulate officials to decide on the visa application at the earliest. In this case, the respondents are legally entitled to process visa applications, and they failed to do their official duty, to the detriment of the petitioner.

If the trial court awards punitive damages in excess, without complying to the statutory cap; and the court refuses to reduce the same, the aggrieved person can file a petition for a writ of mandamus before the superior court. So, a writ of mandamus can be issued to correct an error in a judgment.
When to Seek a Writ of Mandamus?
Firstly, the writ of mandamus is not a legal right. It is the discretion of the court to decide the issue in question and grant the writ, after considering certain factors. The petitioner must have a legal right, which requires the respondent to perform or refrain from performing an act. The act must be an official duty, and the respondent is assigned to do it mandatorily. The duty must not be discretionary in nature.
However, a court can interfere by issuing a writ of mandamus, if a lower court or a public authority indulges in abuse of discretion. An order made by an authority who has no jurisdiction is an abuse of discretion, which may also include an act that is done in bad faith. The writ of mandamus must be sought, only if there is no alternative remedy.

Usually, a superior court denies a petition seeking issuance of a writ of mandamus, if the petitioner has the option of a normal appeal against the order of the trial court. A writ of mandamus may be issued, even if there is an alternative remedy; if the petitioner proves that such remedy is not as effective, convenient, or beneficial for him. Above all, a petition for granting a writ of mandamus must be made in good faith.
Types of Mandamus
An alternative mandamus commands the respondent to perform an act, or appear before the court on the specified date, to show cause why he is unable to perform the same. While an alternative mandamus is issued on the first application, a peremptory mandamus is issued when the respondent fails to comply with the first mandamus.
A peremptory mandamus is a final order to the respondent to perform the act. There exists a third type of mandamus that is called continuing mandamus. As the name rightly suggests, this writ is usually issued in public interest, in order to prevent miscarriage of justice. A continuing mandamus is usually issued against lax and erring officials, who are ordered to work efficiently for a stipulated period.
Powers of Federal and State Courts
In United States, rule 81(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1937, abolished the power of federal courts to issue the writ of mandamus. However, Congress enacted the Mandamus and Venue Act of 1962, to address the problem. Section 1 of the Act created 28 U.S.C. ยง 1361, which states that, "The Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law."
It further states that, "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any action in the nature of mandamus to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed to the plaintiff."

State courts derive their powers from state laws. So, legal provisions may vary from one state to another. For example, Rule 21 of the Alabama Rules of Appellate Procedure provides the legal provisions regarding the use of mandamus in the state. While the writ of mandamus is available in many states, some of them (like New York) have replaced the same with other provisions. In most states, superior courts issue this writ against lower courts and officials entrusted with statutory duties.

An aggrieved party has to file the petition seeking a writ of mandamus, before the relevant court, along with proof of service to the respondents. A copy must be provided to the trial court judge, if the petition is against the trail court order. The petition must clearly state the issues and the relief sought, along with relevant facts and the reasons for seeking the writ. Proof like official records can also be submitted. Though there is no stipulated time frame for seeking relief through this writ, unreasonable delay may affect the case in a negative way. This is only a brief overview of the writ of mandamus. You must consult an experienced attorney, if you want to file a petition seeking the writ.