Common law is generally uncodified. This means that there is no comprehensive compilation of legal rules and statutes. While common law does rely on some scattered statutes, which are legislative decisions, it is largely based on precedent, meaning the judicial decisions that have already been made in similar cases. These precedents are maintained over time through the records of the courts as well as historically documented in collections of case law known as yearbooks and reports. The precedents to be applied in the decision of each new case are determined by the presiding judge. As a result, judges have an enormous role in shaping American and British law. Common law functions as an adversarial system, a contest between two opposing parties before a judge who moderates. A jury of ordinary people without legal training decides on the facts of the case. The judge then determines the appropriate sentence based on the jury’s verdict.
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Common law, also called Anglo-American law, the body of customary law, based upon judicial decisions and embodied in reports of decided cases, that has been administered by the common-law courts of England since the Middle Ages. From it has evolved the type of legal system now found also in the United States and in most of the member states of the Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth of Nations). In this sense common law stands in contrast to the legal system derived from civil law, now widespread in continental Europe and elsewhere. In another, narrower, sense, common law is contrasted to the rules applied in English and American courts of equity and also to statute law. A standing expository difficulty is that, whereas the United Kingdom is a unitary state in international law, it comprises three major (and other minor) legal systems, those of England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Historically, the common-law system in England (applied to Wales since 1536) has directly influenced that in Ireland but only partially influenced the distinct legal system in Scotland, which is therefore, except as regards international matters, not covered in this article. The legal systems in the United Kingdom have, since 1973, experienced integration into the system of European Unionlaw, which has direct effects upon the domestic law of its constituent states—the majority of which have domestic systems that have been influenced by the civil-law tradition and that cultivate a more purposive technique of legislative interpretation than has been customary in the English common law. The regime of human rights represented by the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) has exercised a similar influence in the United Kingdom since the passage by Parliament of the Human Rights Act 1998.
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