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Common law

principles english judges body

Common law, body of laws based on court decisions and customs. It is usually contrasted to statute law, which is made by legislatures. Common law grew out of English custom and became established mainly by the adherence of judges to precedents, or previous decisions—a principle known as stare decisis (stand on things as decided). The decisions of earlier judges became the law of later ones. As new conditions arose, the body of the common law was expanded, and outdated principles fell into disuse, even if never actually abolished. Thus experience, rather than theorizing, furnished the basis for the development of common law. The body and concept of common law passed from England to the United States (except the state of Louisiana, which made the Code Napoléon the basis of its law), Canada (except Quebec), and other areas of the world that have been ruled or influenced by England. No organized body of law existed in England prior to the Norman conquest in 1066, but the Normans brought many new principles and greatly expanded legal institutions. The term common law itself came into general use during the reign of Edward I (1272–1307), who was responsible for a great deal of new legislation. Since by its very nature common law is relatively inflexible and not subject to change or adaptation to suit the needs of a particular case, the system of equity developed to permit judges to resort to the general principles of justice when existing law was inadequate to resolve a case fairly. Eventually, equity was merged with the common law. During the Middle Ages, Italian jurists pioneered the rediscovery of the principles of Roman law. These doctrines were accepted by many European countries, in which they then displaced the customary or common law. But the English legal system withstood the attempts of advocates of Roman law to establish their doctrine. The fight to maintain the authority of the common law, led by great lawyers such as Edward Coke, became part of the constitutional struggle of the 17th century between Parliament and the kings.

When the English colonies in North America framed their legal systems after declaring their independence of the mother country, they either kept the English common law as a guide to judges or formally adopted its principles in their statutes and constitutions. There is no federal common law, though precedents in federal cases are very important in later decisions.

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