The term is widely used to refer to more esoteric entities in a number of disciplines, including
- philosophy, when a concept is not available[clarification needed]
- biology when a species does not fit into a genus which includes other species
- law when a special and unique interpretation of a case or authority is found to be necessary
- town planning where there is no existing use case[clarification needed]
- intellectual property rights where there is no defining characteristic[clarification needed]; and
- politics and societal norms where there is no real authority perceived[clarification needed].
The expression is often used in analytic philosophy to indicate an idea, an entity, or a reality which cannot be reduced to a lower concept or included in a wider concept.
In the taxonomical structure "genus → species", a species is described as sui generis if its genus was created to classify it (i.e. its uniqueness at the time of classification merited the creation of a new genus, the sole member of which was initially the sui generis species). A species that is the sole extant member of its genus (e.g. the Homo genus) is not necessarily sui generis: extinction may have eliminated other species of that genus.
In law, it is a term of art used to identify a legal classification that exists independently of other categorizations because of its singularity or due to the specific creation of an entitlement or obligation. For example, a court's contempt powers arise sui generis and not from statute or rule. The New York Court of Appeals has used the term in describing cooperative apartment corporations, mostly because this form of housing is considered real property for some purposes and personal property for other purposes.
When citing cases and other authorities, lawyers and judges may refer to "a sui generis case", or "a sui generis authority", meaning it is a special one confined to its own facts, and therefore may not be of broader application.
In statutory interpretation, it refers to the problem of giving meaning to groups of words where one of the words is ambiguous or inherently unclear. For example, in criminal law, a statute might require a mens rea element of "unlawful and malicious" intent. Whereas the word "malicious" is well-understood, the word "unlawful" in this context is less clear. Hence, it must be given a meaning of the same kind as the word of established meaning.
This is particularly the case when the two or more words are connected by "and", as opposed to "or". The interpretation of the two or more words might have a sui generis difference depending on the circumstances. Courts sometimes have to attribute a conjunctive (X 'and' Y) intention to the legislature even though the list is disjunctive (X 'or' Y) because, otherwise, no overall interpretation of the law in question would make sense.
In British town planning law, such as the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, many common types of land use are classified in "use classes". Change of use of land within a use class does not require planning permission; however, changing between use classes might require planning permission, but not if the use class is sui generis.
Examples of sui generis transference include embassies, theatres, amusement arcades, laundrettes, taxi or vehicle hire businesses, petrol filling stations, scrapyards, nightclubs, motor car showrooms, retail warehouses, clubs and hostels.
It is a common misconception, even amongst qualified and experienced town planners, that the change of use from an existing use class to one which is sui generis always requires planning permission. It does not, because it is not transferred between two existing use classes. (Permission is only required if the sui generis use is materially different from the existing one, such as from a petrol station where petrol tanks might have leaked.) As in other applications of the phrase sui generis, the decisions will be a unique matter of fact, degree, and professional opinion.
Aboriginal law and education
The motto "Sui Generis" has been adopted by the Akitsiraq Law School. Because the title of the law school is in Inuktitut, the Aboriginal language of the Inuit in the far north of Canada, it is a sui generis (aboriginal) title in all of Canadian aboriginal law institutes. More importantly, in aboriginal professional legal education, the work of Aboriginal people to define and create contemporary aboriginal education is a thing of its own kind having sui generis admissions and sui generis curriculum.
Intellectual property law
Generally speaking, protection for intellectual property is extended to "matter" depending upon its "characteristics". The main types of intellectual property law (copyrights, patents, and trademarks) define "characteristics". Any matter that meets such criteria is extended protection.
However, sui generis statutes exist in many countries that extend intellectual property protection to matter that does not meet characteristic definitions: mask works, ship hull designs, fashion designs in France, databases, or plant varieties require sui generis statutes because of their unique characteristics. The United States, Japan, and many EU countries protect the topography of semiconductor chips and integrated circuits under sui generis laws, some of whose aspects are borrowed from patent or copyright law. In the U.S. this sui generis law is known as the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984.
Politics and society
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In political philosophy, the unparalleled development of the European Union as compared to other international organizations has led to its designation as a sui generis geopolitical entity. There has been widespread debate over the legal nature of the EU given its mixture of intergovernmental and supranational elements, with the organisation thus possessing some characteristics common to confederal and federal entities.
A similar case which has led to the use of the label sui generis is the unique relationship between France and New Caledonia, since the legal status of New Caledonia can aptly be said to lie "somewhere between an overseas collectivity and a sovereign nation". Whereas there are perhaps other examples of such a status for other disputed or dependent territories, this arrangement is certainly unique within the French Republic.
In local government, a sui generis entity is one which does not fit with the general scheme of local governance of a country. For example in England, the City of London and the Isles of Scilly are the two sui generis localities, as their forms of local government are both (for historical or geographical reasons) very different from those of elsewhere in the country . So it is said that The City of London and the Isles of Scilly are sui generis authorities, pre-dating recent reforms of local government. In Croatia the Joint Council of Municipalities is to Croatians a sui generis council of municipalities; being formed after international agreement, it has no similar example in the rest of the country. The legal status of the Holy See has been described as a sui generis entity possessing an international personality.
Émile Durkheim's sociology
In the sociology of Émile Durkheim, sui generis is used to illustrate his theory of an independence in social existence, as follows. The main objective of sociology is to study social facts. Durkheim thinks any social fact has a meaning of its own, but is only explained using the body of social facts, each having meanings of their own. Thus a social fact is dependent on other social facts, but because each is only dependent on and reducible to other social facts, it is independent of and irreducible to psychological or biological factors. By extension, Durkheim believes that an organisation can replace some of its individuals with some others, yet the essence of the organisation will not necessarily change. He cites the example that over the course of a few decades, the entire staff of an organisation is replaced, while the organisation retains its distinctive character. Furthermore an entire society thus built has its own essence per se, before any individual currently living in it is born, and is thus "independent of any individual". For Durkheim then, a society is a sui generis society, and will continue its its own independent existence after the apparently indispensable (or dispensable) or famous (or infamous) historical individual ceases to interact with it, and so the appearance of indispensability and deservedness is absolutely deceptive.
- "sui generis". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.
- Dictionary.com "Word of the day" 2001-06-14  accessed 2007-10-14
- See Dunway v. New York,442 U.S. 200 (1979).
- See In re Marriage of Betts, 558 N.E.2d 404, 200 Ill.App.3d 26 (1990).
- See Matter of State Tax Commn. v. Shor, 43 NY2d 151, 400 N.Y.S.2d 805, 371 N.E.2d 523 (1977).
- (Hampton, E. (p. 10-11) in Battiste & Barman (Eds.). First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. UBC Press, 1995)