What Is Common Law? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Common Law
  • 0:31 Stare Decisis & Common Law
  • 1:16 Examples of Common Law
  • 2:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

After you complete this lesson, you will understand what constitutes common law. Moreover, you will learn the doctrine of stare decisis and review an example where common law is utilized.

Definition of Common Law

Common law is a type of law that is established by particular cases, as compared to law that uses statutes as its guide. If a statute (or formal written law) is followed in a case, a judge will make his or her decision based on an interpretation of that statute. However, in common law, judges determine a case based upon the particular facts and circumstances in the dispute. Moreover, the judge can look to prior decisions when making a determination. These prior decisions are called precedent.

Stare Decisis and Common Law

In common law, there is a doctrine, which is relied upon by common law attorneys trying to prove their cases. Stare decisis is the name of this doctrine. Under stare decisis, a common law judge must look to prior decisions that are similar and base their decisions on the precedent. If a judge fails to follow prior decisions in a similar matter, the judge's decision is likely to be overturned later on in the legal process.

Conversely, when cases do not have any precedent, it is called a case of first impression. In these instances, a judge must look to related laws, as well as the particular facts and circumstances, in order to make a decision. As a result, the doctrine of stare decisis will not apply to a case of first impression.

Examples of Common Law

Imagine that you bring a case to court based upon injuries you sustained from a car accident. You are suing the driver who was intoxicated when the accident happened. The judge, in adherence to common law, must decide whether the party is liable for your damages from the accident. He will rely upon the arguments and statements made during the case, as well as use prior decisions whenever necessary to interpret any legal matters that come up.

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