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Common Law Last: 08/31/2014

This page is a page of Basic Common Law. See more at this link.

I. Introduction

Common Law, term used to refer to the main body of English unwritten law that evolved from the 12th century onward. The name comes from the idea that English medieval law, as administered by the courts of the realm, reflected the "common" customs of the kingdom. This system of law prevails in Britain and in those countries, such as Canada and the United States, that were originally colonized by English settlers.

II. The Legal System

The common law is based on the principle of deciding cases by reference to previous judicial decisions, rather than to written statutes drafted by legislative bodies. Common law can be contrasted to the civil-law system, based on ancient Roman law, found in continental Europe and elsewhere (see Civil Law; Roman Law). Whereas civil-law judges resolve disputes by referring to statutory principles arrived at in advance, common-law judges focus more intently on the facts of the particular case to arrive at a fair and equitable result for the litigants.

As the number of judicial decisions accumulate on a particular kind of dispute, general rules or precedents emerge and become guidelines for judges deciding similar cases in the future. Subsequent cases, however, may reveal new and different facts and considerations, such as changing social or technological conditions. A common-law judge is then free to depart from precedent and establish a new rule of decision, which sets a new precedent as it is accepted and used by different judges in other cases. In this manner, common law retains a dynamic for change. As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in his book, The Common Law (1881): "The life of the [common] law has not been logic; it has been experience."

In all common-law systems, a pyramidal structure of courts exists to define and refine the law. At the base of the pyramid are trial courts, composed of a single judge and a jury selected from local citizens. The judge controls the conduct of the court and the admission of evidence. After both sides have presented their evidence, the judge instructs the jury on the appropriate legal principles to be applied in determining the case. The jury then weighs the facts and applies the law, as stated by the judge, in order to reach a verdict or judgment.

Above the trial courts, layers of appellate courts, composed entirely of judges, exist to adjudicate disputes. These disputes center on whether or not the trial judge applied the correct principles of law. (The jury's determination of fact and its ultimate verdict or judgment are not subject to appellate review, however, in order to preserve the independence of the jury as a check on judicial power.) The interpretations of law made by appellate courts form the precedents that govern future cases. Furthermore, the importance of a precedent for any given court depends on that court's position in the pyramidal structure; for example, a precedent set by an appellate court has greater force in trial courts than in other appellate courts.

III. Reporting the Unwritten Law

Common law has been known as unwritten law, because it is not collected in a single source. Reports of the judicial decisions from which the common law was derived were only occasionally circulated from the 12th to the 16th century. Starting in the 17th century formal reports of some decisions were published by private parties. These early reports were supplemented by infrequent scholarly treatises summarizing large segments of the case law, such as those of Sir Edward Coke (published in 1628) and Sir William Blackstone (1765-69). As reporting improved, the influence of these treatise writers diminished. In the 19th century the courts themselves took responsibility for publishing judicial decisions in both Britain and the U.S. It is primarily decisions of appellate rather than trial courts that are published.

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