Common Law vs. Statutory Law—What’s the Difference?

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Common Law vs. Statutory Law—What’s the Difference?

There are two main types of law within our legal system, known as common and statutory law. Both common and statutory laws set a standard of acceptable behavior and justice for both citizens and their government. But while both are essential components of the legal system, they each have different origins and applications.

Learning the difference between common law and statutory law can help you better understand your rights.  Continue reading to learn more about common law vs. statutory law, and examples of each.

Common Law vs. Statutory Law

What Is Common Law?

Also known as “case law,” common law is uncodified, meaning that it is not compiled into rules and statutes. Instead, common law relies on precedent.

The historical judicial rulings of past federal, state, or local court cases sets the precedent for future cases. Sometimes, judgments that establish a new precedent turn into a new law. One example of common law is a common-law marriage, which recognizes that couples who meet certain conditions have the same rights as married couples. 

Common law entails all the documented collections of previous case precedents. So if you’ve ever heard a lawyer argue in court that a ruling has precedent or does not have precedent according to a specific case, then they are making their argument based upon common law.

Common law helps promote a consistent interpretation of the law. Each precedent set by higher courts is legally binding in lower courts. When a precedent is set for a certain type of case by a higher court, then the lower court has to give the same judgment in future cases. 

However, if a lower court feels the precedent has become outdated or does not relate closely enough to the case at hand, then they can choose to deviate or modify the precedent.

What Is Statutory Law?

The main difference between the two is that common law is based on past judicial opinions, while statutory law is based on current statutes (written laws). Examples of statutory laws include traffic laws like driving on a suspended license, drug laws like those regarding drug possession, etc.

Unlike common law, statutory law is codified and encompasses compiled legislation that has been passed on a local, state, or federal level.

Also known as civil law, statutory law is strict in its application, which means it is not subject to the same interpretation as common law. In other words, a statute means exactly what it says.

However, statutes are subject to being overturned or changed if a later legislative body finds them unconstitutional. Some statutes may even expire every few years by design.

If the law is still necessary, then it can be renewed after the expiration. In this way, statutory law is flexible in order for the law to remain relevant and reasonable to the people the law protects and regulates.

A Criminal Defense Attorney in Phoenix You Can Trust

Todd Coolidge, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix, thoroughly understands the differences between common law and statutory law. At Coolidge Law Firm, we know how to research case law to find precedent on behalf of our clients. If you’re in need of a criminal law specialist to handle your case, then look no further. Schedule your consultation today!


Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (8/8/2023). Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash