Common law is based on fundamental principles and customs of a given society. A judge makes their argument based on these principles when deciding on a case. The decision then becomes the case precedent upon which other similar cases will be referred. This means that a judge presiding over a similar case in the future must make their decisions based on preceding cases. So basically, common law, sometimes referred to as case law or case precedent, are man-made laws that are developed through court rulings rather than relying solely on statutes and regulations. Common law seeks to promote consistency in court rulings and ensure uniform results for similar cases. However, precedents may vary depending on the jurisdiction because a precedent made in one jurisdiction is not legally binding in other jurisdictions.
In the United States, common law was introduced by colonists during their arrival in the colonial period. The American Revolution that resulted in the formation of new states influenced the adoption of newly formed common law for each state, separate from statutory law. Today, all states have embraced common law except Louisiana, which employs a legal hybrid system, which is a blend between French civil law and English criminal law.
The Principle of Stare Decisis and Common Law
During court rulings in common law, attorneys and judges highly rely on the doctrine of stare decisis when trying to prove their cases and make their decision. The principles require a common-law judge to look at previous similar matters and make their decisions based on these cases. If a judge decides to take a completely different direction, their ruling is likely to be overturned later in the legal process.
In situations where a legal matter is new to the court, it is referred to as a case of the first impression. This means that there exists no case precedent upon which a judge can base their decision. A common law judge must refer to other related laws, use logical thinking, facts, and circumstances surrounding the situation to make the most appropriate decision. As such, the principle of stare decisis does not apply to cases of first impression. However, precedents are not rigid and constant. Sometimes, although rarely, can shift over time or be overturned by the same court that endorsed it or through legislation. Common law helps to regulate behavior in society because people are able to gauge the consequences of their actions by looking at precedent cases.