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Common law

Common law is a legal term you might need to understand some day. Find out what it means.

What is common law?

Common law is a law derived from common use, ancient customs of the land or past interpretations and pronouncements of courts. Countries with common law systems such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and other commonwealth and ex-commonwealth countries derive their laws from common law, as well as codified law.

Deeper definition

Common law is basically the representation of past decisions made by courts, which become binding examples. The idea of having common law is to standardize the interpretation of statutes and to keep the courts from repeatedly having to go over facts that are essentially similar. Common law decisions are important as they deal with the obscurity of certain single statutes and resolve conflicts among statutes.

In the event that a statute is unclear, a common law decision is made. This then becomes the binding example for all similar cases in the future. However, this binding precedent can be overruled by a higher court’s decision, which would then become the binding precedent for all future cases. The process continues until a similar case is decided by the highest court in a country making the precedent binding.

However, if the government disapproves of the decision by the highest court, it can introduce a new statute that overrules the existing common law since statutes prevail over common law.

Common law example

Circumstances surrounding different cases vary. However, in common law, decisions are made based on the essential elements that the first decision was based on. Judges are expected to explain their decisions in writing. Regardless of different circumstances in future cases, the judge will look for the essential elements that make a case similar to a previous common-law case.

Civil/codified laws and systems clearly define and outline which cases can and cannot be brought to court, as well as the legal process of handling all claims and punishments for every offense. Courts make use of the civil codes to evaluate the facts of individual cases and to make rulings. The civil law is upgraded on a regular basis.

Common law, on the other hand, feeds from interpretations of court authorities and institutionalized opinions. The precedents presented by the judge for a given case significantly affect the criteria a jury uses to decide the case. Traditions and customs of the land also affect the common law ruling, which may lead to unfair empowerment and marginalization of particular groups unless a higher judicial body overrides the precedent. However, civil law and common law are similar in that their main goal is to establish consistency in rulings by applying similar standards of interpretation.

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