Common Law

Common Law in United Kingdom

Definition of Common Law

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Common Law : 1. The part of English law based on rules developed by the royal courts during the first three centuries after the Norman Conquest (1066) as a system applicable to the whole country, as opposed to local customs. The Normans did not attempt to make new law for the country or to impose French law on it; they were mainly concerned with establishing a strong central administration and safeguarding the royal revenues, and it was through machinery devised for these purposes that the common law developed. Royal representatives were sent on tours of the shires to check on the conduct of local affairs generally, and this involved their participating in the work of local courts. At the same time there split off from the body of advisers surrounding the king (the curia regis) the first permanent royal court – the *Court of Exchequer, sitting at Westminster to hear disputes concerning the revenues. Under Henry II (reigned 1154-89), to whom the development of the common law is principally due, the royal representatives were sent out on a regular basis (their tours being known as circuits) and their functions began to be exclusively judicial. Known as justiciae errantes (wandering justices), they took over the work of the local courts. In the same period there appeared at Westminster a second permanent royal court, the *Court of Common Pleas. These two steps mark the real origins of the common law. The judges of the Court of Common Pleas so successfully superimposed a single system on the multiplicity of local customs that, as early as the end of the 12th century, reference is found in court records to the custom of the kingdom. In this process they were joined by the judges of the Court of Exchequer, which began to exercise jurisdiction in many cases involving disputes between subjects rather than the royal revenues, and by those of a third royal court that gradually emerged – the Court of King’s Bench (See Court of Queen’s Bench). The common law was subsequently supplemented by *equity, but it remained separately administered by the three courts of common law until they and the Court of Chancery (all of them sitting in Westminster Hall until rehoused in the Strand in 1872) were replaced by the *High Court of Justice under the Judicature Acts 1873-75.

2. Rules of law developed by the courts as opposed to those created by statute.

3. A general system of law deriving exclusively from court decisions.

Common Law in England

Common law is distinguished from other forms of judge-made law from parallel court systems. In medieval times, for example, common-law courts were secular, as contrasted with the ecclesiastical courts of the Roman Catholic church. Common-law courts did not deal with merchant law, which was administered in mercantile courts, or with maritime law, administered in the admiralty court.

The most important parallel system was equity jurisdiction. Equity originated in early English law when subjects petitioned the monarch for justice. Such petitions were delegated to the lord chancellor and later to a tribunal called the court of chancery. Equity grew into a special body of rules over and above those administered in other royal courts of law. At first, common-law courts were more bound by precedent than were courts of equity, which provided remedies based on notions of fairness to litigants who were denied relief on technical grounds under common law.

By the end of the medieval period, common law and equity constituted the vast bulk of all English law. As common law became less formal and as equity accumulated its own set of precedents, these two forms of judge-made law grew closer together. Britain abolished the distinction between common law and equity in the Judicature Act of 1873. The ultimate effect of the growth and absorption of equity jurisdiction was to gradually expand the range of disputes that could be adjudicated in formal courts.

During and after the Industrial Revolution, in response to the growing complexity of law and the need for greater clarity and accessibility, the British Parliament asserted itself as the principal source of new law, modifying and adding to the body of judge-made law by statute. In modern times, the statutes of Parliament have come to encompass most legal relationships. The common law, however, remains in force to help interpret statutes, many of which are primarily restatements of common-law rules and principles. See British Political and Social Thought. (1)


Common Law is the “body of English law which has been built up in the centuries since the Norman Conquest by the custom and practice of judges -in accordance to Bamber Gascoigne´ Encyclopedia of Britain about “Common law”– dealing with specific cases (it is also known as case law), as opposed to statute law established by act of parliament. Inevitably the body of material became impossibly unwieldy, and an important part has been played by jurists selecting and annotating the most significant judgements.

A formative span of British history, from the *Tudors to the *Hanoverians, produced three outstanding commentators of this kind: Edward *Coke, whose Institutes of the Laws of England appeared in 1628; Matthew Hale (1609–76), whose (History of the Pleas of the Crown (1685) and History of the Common Law of England (1713) were published after his death; and William Blackstone (1723–80), author of the famous Commentaries based on his lectures at Oxford (Commentaries on the Laws of England 1765–9).”

Common law in the Context of Mortgages

A body of laws based on custom, usage and rulings by courts in various jurisdictions.

Similar Terms

Common area

Common area

An area inside a housing development that is owned by all residents.


Notes and References

  1. Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Definition of Common Law

The system of laws originated and developed in england.



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2 responses to “Common Law”

  1. A couple of embarrassing errors on this important page:

    Spelling: “Hisory” as subtitle

    Brackets: Matthew Hale (1609–76), whose (History of the Pleas of the Crown (1685) and History of the Common Law of England (1713) were published after his death;

  2. Cattena Fontenot

    What is a common law clerk? What are the duties and responsibilities? Are there different types of common law clerks?