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simplified common law definition

Simplified Common Law Definition: Easy Explanation

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Did you know that about a third of the world’s people live under common law or similar systems? These systems mix common law with civil law. They came from the British tradition. This tradition has influenced many countries, like the United States, Canada, Australia, and India. So, what is common law and how is it different from other legal systems?

Common law relies a lot on court decisions and past cases instead of written laws. It’s based on the idea of stare decisis. This idea says that courts must make decisions based on past court rulings. This way, the law can change and grow over time.

Civil law, on the other hand, uses written, detailed laws created by lawmakers. Unlike common law, civil law is not as flexible. In common law, judges can make new laws by applying old ones to new situations. They don’t have to wait for new laws to be written.

Key Takeaways

  • Common law is a legal system that relies on court decisions and judicial precedents, rather than comprehensive, codified statutory laws.
  • The principle of stare decisis requires courts to follow the rulings and legal principles established in previous cases when deciding similar issues.
  • Common law systems offer greater flexibility and adaptability compared to civil law systems, which are primarily based on comprehensive codes and statutes.
  • Judges in common law jurisdictions have the authority to interpret and apply the law to new situations, responding to changing social needs and technological advancements.
  • The U.S. common-law system evolved from a British tradition that spread to North America during the 17th- and 18th-century colonial period.

What is Common Law?

Common law comes from England and grew over many years. It’s now a major legal system in the United States and other countries. Common law is a set of laws that are not written down. They come from past legal decisions.

Understanding Common Law’s Roots and Principles

The common law started in Medieval England after 1066. This system built up over time. It uses past legal decisions to make current ones. This is known as stare decisis.

In the U.S., common law is law made by judges in their rulings. This is also called case law. It helps keep the law steady, fair, and able to change when needed. Courts use old rulings to make new decisions.

But, there are also written laws, called statutory laws. Legislatures can make these laws. They help guide common law and fill gaps where needed.

Compared to civil law, where everything is written in codes, common law lets judges have more say. Lawyers are key in common law as they present cases. They help the law grow through their arguments.

Characteristic Common Law Civil Law
Source of Law Judicial decisions (case law) Comprehensive legal codes
Role of Judges Interpret and apply the law based on precedent Apply the law as codified by the legislature
Legal Reasoning Inductive, based on case-by-case analysis Deductive, based on the application of codified laws
Influence of Precedent Binding, with courts required to follow past decisions Limited, with courts focusing on the application of codified laws

The common law has shaped laws in the U.S. and many other places. It’s about using past decisions to make new ones. This helps keep our laws fair and ready for change.

common law system

Simplified Common Law Definition: Distinguishing Common Law from Civil Law

In the world, there are mainly two legal systems: common law and civil law. Both are to protect justice and manage how people live together. Yet, they go about these goals quite differently.

The common law tradition started in England during the Middle Ages. It heavily uses past court decisions and the principle of stare decisis. This means courts can look back at what’s been decided before and use that to help in new cases.

On the other hand, civil law systems rely mostly on written laws created by lawmakers. Judges in these places must stick very close to what these written laws say. They don’t have as much freedom to make new laws through their decisions.

This is a big dividing line between common law and civil law. Common law lets judges use their judgment more. Civil law puts more focus on obeying what’s already written in law books.

Common Law Civil Law
Relies on judicial precedents and the principle of stare decisis Based primarily on comprehensive legal codes and statutes enacted by legislative bodies
Allows courts to adapt the law to new situations and evolving societal norms Requires judges to strictly apply the codified laws, with less latitude for interpretation
Emphasizes the role of judicial discretion in shaping the law Prioritizes the primacy of legislatively enacted, codified statutory laws

The differences between common law and civil law run deep. They affect how laws are read, followed, and made in countries all over the globe.

Comparison of Common Law and Civil Law


The common law system has been key in shaping laws in the United States and around the globe. It’s based on stare decisis, a rule where courts must follow earlier decisions. This helps make sure the law stays steady and fair.

Yet, the system is also flexible. This happens when judges think over past cases to decide new ones. This mix of using past cases and judge’s own thought is what makes common law grow and change as time goes on. It can respond to new issues as society changes.

Civil law systems, on the other hand, mainly use written laws created by governments. They see judges more as fact checkers than as decision makers.

The combination of sticking to old practices while also finding new solutions helps the common law system stand strong. Even as laws become more complex, common law ideas remain crucial. They make sure justice is served fairly and effectively.


What is common law?

Common law is a system based on court decisions and precedents. It doesn’t rely on detailed, written laws. Stare decisis is its core principle. This means courts use past rulings in similar cases.

How does common law differ from civil law?

There’s a big difference between common law and civil law. Common law uses previous court decisions. Civil law is based on written statutes passed by lawmakers. In civil law, judges must strictly follow these laws.

What is the principle of stare decisis?

The common law is guided by stare decisis. This principle makes courts use past cases’ decisions. It aims to keep the law stable and fair for all.

How does common law evolve over time?

Common law changes as new cases are decided. Unlike civil law, it’s not fixed by written rules. Judges interpret laws to fit current issues. This keeps the law up-to-date with society.

Does common law exist without any statutory laws?

No. Common law combines both judge-made and statutory law. Statutes are sometimes used to modify the common law. This mix is a main aspect of the common law system.

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