DEFINITION of 'Common Law'Common law is a body of unwritten laws based on precedents established by the courts. Common law influences the decision-making process in novel cases where the outcome cannot be determined based on existing statutes.
The U.S. common-law system evolved from a precolonial tradition in England, which spread to North America and other continents during the colonial period.
BREAKING DOWN 'Common Law'A precedent, known as stare decisis, is a history of judicial decisions that forms the basis of evaluation for future cases. Common law, also known as case law, relies on detailed records of similar cases and statutes because there is no official legal code that governs the case at hand. The judge presiding over a court case determines which precedents apply. The precedents of higher courts are binding on lower courts to promote stability and consistency in the U.S. legal justice system. However, lower courts can choose to modify or deviate from precedents if the precedents are outdated or if the current case is substantially different from the precedent case. Lower courts can also choose to overturn the precedent, but this is rare.
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