Legal Definition of Common Law
Common law, also known as case law or precedent, is a body of law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action. A “common law system” is a legal system that gives great precedential weight to common law, on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions. The body of precedent is called “common law” and it binds future decisions.
At its core, common law is a system of law based on a recorded judicial precedent. It emerged in England during the Middle Ages and was applied within British colonies across continents. The principles of common law are applied in civil matters, including property, contracts, and torts. Under this system, when courts make decisions in legal disputes, they must consider the decisions of earlier courts (precedents) that had similar cases. These past decisions are known as case law or precedent.
Common law has evolved over time, and its application has been modified by statutes and regulations enacted by legislative bodies and interpreted by courts. These statutes can overrule judicial decisions based on common law and can provide new rules that courts must follow. However, in cases where statutes do not cover specific scenarios, common law principles will still apply.
One of the main features of common law is the role of judicial interpretation. Courts interpret the law and determine how to apply existing laws to new situations. In this way, common law systems are thought to be more flexible and responsive to changes in society, as compared to civil law systems, which rely more heavily on statutes and codes.
Another feature of common law is the doctrine of stare decisis, which means “to stand by things decided” in Latin. This doctrine requires courts to adhere to and apply principles established in previous decisions to cases that are factually similar. It ensures consistency and predictability in the law, allowing individuals and businesses to plan their affairs with some assurance of how the law will be applied.
Despite its origins in England, common law has been adopted in many regions around the world, particularly in countries that were part of the British Empire. Common law systems can be found in the United States, Canada, Australia, and India, among others. Each of these systems has developed its own nuances and interpretations of common law principles, influenced by local customs and legal needs.
However, common law is not static. It adapts and changes over time with new rulings and societal changes. For example, the development of new technologies often leads to new legal precedents in common law, as courts decide how to apply traditional legal principles to modern scenarios.
In summary, common law is a legal system characterized by the importance of judicial precedent, as opposed to statutory laws. It provides a flexible framework for legal decision-making, adapting to new circumstances and societal changes while maintaining consistency through the doctrine of stare decisis.