One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
In civil and criminal law: a plea either in abatement or in bar of an action or prosecution, alleging some new fact, and not, as in the general issue, merely disputing the ground of action or charge; compare to plead specially.
Late 16th century. From special + plea.
special plea/ˌspɛʃl ˈpliː/
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