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English Common Law System: Definition & History

Instructor: Shavonnie Carthens

Shavonnie has a law degree from North Carolina Central University. She is an attorney and teaches college level legal and ethics courses.

The English common law system is the foundation of several systems of law throughout the world. In this lesson you will learn the history and definition of the English common law system.

History of the English Common Law System

The English common law system is an unwritten practice of legal traditions that are based on precedents set by legal decisions. Before getting into a more detailed definition, let's look the history of this system.

The English common law system dates back to the Middle Ages. The term common refers to unwritten laws that included the accepted behaviors, local customs, and traditions of Great Britain. This system of legal decisions developed over centuries in England and was the standard in Great Britain as well as British colonies throughout the globe. This system remains in use within Great Britain and other countries that were former British colonies including, Canada, Nigeria, the United States, and Australia.

Defining the English Common Law System

One distinctive characteristic of the English common law system is that it is based on unwritten law formed by previous court decisions. Unlike the civil law system, this system isn't based on statutory codes. On the contrary, it is based on a prior legal decision or pattern of legal decisions that serve as a guide when similar issues arise. These previous decisions are known by the term precedent and are the heart of the English common law system.

A precedent isn't necessarily one decision. In fact, a legal ruling may be based on a precedent created by a large grouping of cases and accepted community practices that came before it. Over time these decisions begin to form a pattern that serves as the basis for common law judicial decisions.

In practice, when a new case comes before a judge applying the common law system, the facts of the case and legal issues presented are examined in light of previous court decisions that presented similar questions of law. The judge then uses these precedents as the authority for making a decision on the case currently under his or her consideration.

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