Common law, also known as case law, is the body of law that is derived from judicial decisions of courts rather than statutes. Common law influences decision-making in cases where the outcome cannot be determined based on written laws or statutes. A common law court looks to past precedential decisions to apply the principles of those cases to the current case.
Common law in American courts is constructed from the courts of English kings. The British Empire spread its legal system, including common law, to its colonies, many of which still retain it today.
Common Law vs. Other Legal Systems
In contrast to common law is civil law, which is a codified set of legal statues and laws created by legislatures. In civil law, judicial authorities use the civil code to evaluate cases and reach decisions. Civil systems also clearly define the cases that can be brought to court, the procedures for handling claims, ad the punishments for an offense. Both civil law and common law share the goal of establishing consistent outcomes by applying the same standards of interpretation.
Additionally, some countries have customary laws where patterns of behavior or customs have been accepted as legal requirements or rules of conduct. Other countries have religious legal systems, where religious texts or traditions define that country’s laws. Religious legal systems are commonly seen in Islamic countries.
Some countries have mixed legal systems that include common law and some other type of legal system in place.
Common Law Countries
The following countries have common law legal systems:
- American Samoa
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Bangladesh – family law is heavily based on Shariah law
- Bhutan – has Indian influence and religious law as well
- The British Virgin Islands
- Canada – except in Quebec, where a civil law system based on French law is used
- Cayman Islands
- Cyprus - has civil law influences, specifically in criminal law
- England and Wales
- Hong Kong (principally based on common law)
- India – except in Goa, Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli
- Israel – also incorporates civil law and Halakha and Sharia for family law
- Liberia – also uses customary law
- Marshall Islands
- New Zealand
- Northern Ireland
- Pakistan – with provisions of Islamic law
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Singapore – Muslims are subject to the Sharia Court jurisdiction over Muslim personal law
- Trinidad and Tobago
- United States – except in Louisiana, where the law is based on French and Spanish Civil law