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10 Review of the learning outcomes

After studying this unit you should be able to:

Part A

  • explain what the common law is and how it developed:

    • In 1154 Henry II institutionalised common law. Judges travelled throughout the country bringing consistent justice to every citizen, and the practice developed where past decisions would be cited in argument before the courts and would be regarded as being of persuasive authority.


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9 Part H Consolidation

The purpose of this part is to bring together your knowledge of law making in the English legal system. Through a series of activities you will be provided with the opportunity to review and consolidate your knowledge of the English legal system gained so far.

Activity 18 Common law


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8.2 Summary of Part G

In Part G you have explored the difference between common law and civil law systems.


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8.1 The differences between common law and civil law systems

Having explored the origins and development of the common law and its characteristics, the final part of this unit will compare and contrast the common law with civil legal systems.

The terms common law system and civil law system are used to distinguish two distinct legal systems and approaches to law. The use of the term ‘common law’ in this context refers to all those legal systems which have adopted the historic English legal system. Foremost amongst these is, of course, th
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7.3 Summary of Part F

In Part F, we have compared and contrasted:

  • common law and equity

  • common law and statute law.

7.2 Statute law and common law

The ‘common law’ means the substantive law and procedural rules that have been created by the judges through the decisions in the cases they have heard. I have here lumped together two types of common law: substantive law and procedural law. Let me explain the difference between them.

A substantive rule is a rule about our behaviour, for example, that we cannot commit murder or that we will be forming a contract if we do such-and-such on an email exchange. These substantive rul
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7.1 Equity

This term refers to a particular division within the English legal system. As the common law progressed, there developed a formality among judges, typified by a reluctance to deal with matters that were not or could not be processed in the proper form of action. Such a refusal to deal with injustices because they did not fall within the particular procedural and formal constraints, led to much dissatisfaction with the legal system. A modern analogy would be with a company or Government depart
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6.9 Summary of Part E

Rule, approach or aid Comment Cases
The literal rule Uses plain ordinary grammatical meaning of words and avoids judicial law making, but can lead to absurd decisions and injustices and assumes unattainable perfection in draftsmanship Fisher v Bell (1960)
The golden rule This start
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4.1 Introduction

You cannot cite precedents to a judge and ask him or her to follow them if you don't have a good record of all the earlier cases and how they were decided. The operation of binding precedent, therefore, relies on the existence of an extensive reporting service to provide access to previous judicial decisions.

This section will briefly set out where you might locate case reports on particular areas of the law. This is of particular importance to advocates (usually barristers but s
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3.5 Summary of Part B

In Part B you have learned that:

  • the system of precedent requires later courts to use the same reasoning as an earlier court, where two cases raise the same legal issues;

  • the contents of a case report can be divided into two categories:

    • ratio decidendi – the statement of legal principles essential to the decision. The ratio is the binding element of the case


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3.4.3 Summary of binding precedent

In this section you have seen:

  • that not everything in a court case sets a precedent

  • the difference between ratio decidendi (the statement of legal principles material to the decision) and obiter dictum (the discussion of legal principles raised in argument but not material to the decision)

  • that the binding element in a future case is the ratio and that, while the obiter will never be bindin
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3.4.2 Distinguishing

In comparison with the mechanism of overruling, which is rarely used, the main device for avoiding binding precedent is that of distinguishing. As has been previously stated, the ratio decidendi of any case is based upon the material facts of the case. This opens up the possibility that a court may regard the facts of the case before it as significantly different from the facts of a cited precedent, so it will not find itself bound to follow that precedent. Judges use the device of dis
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3.4.1 Overruling

Overruling is the procedure whereby a court higher up in the hierarchy sets aside a legal ruling established in a previous case.

It is strange that, within the system of stare decisis, precedents gain increased authority with the passage of time. As a consequence, courts tend to be reluctant to overrule longstanding authorities even though they may no longer accurately reflect contemporary practices or morals. While old principles are not usually good in dentistry or computer sci
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3.4 Binding precedent

Not everything in a court case sets a precedent. The contents of a case report can be divided into two categories:

  • 1. The reason for the decision – ratio decidendi

  • The ratio decidendi of a case is not the actual decision, like ‘guilty’ or ‘the defendant is liable to pay compensation’. The precedent is set by the rule of law used by the judge or judges in deciding the legal problem raised by the facts
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3.3.6 Summary of the system of precedent

The basis of the system of precedent is the principle of stare decisis and this requires a later court to use the same reasoning as an earlier court where the two cases raise the same legal issues. For example:

  • House of Lords’ decisions are binding on all other courts in the legal system, except the House of Lords itself.

  • The Court of Appeal is bound by previous decisions of the House of Lords. The Court of Appeal generally i
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3.3.5 The High Court

The High Court is also bound by the decisions of superior courts. Decisions by individual High Court judges are binding on courts inferior in the hierarchy, but such decisions are not binding on other High Court judges, although they are of strong persuasive authority and tend to be followed in practice. It is possible, however, for High Court judges to disagree and for them to reach different conclusions as to the law in a particular area. The question then becomes – how is a later High Co
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3.3.4 Divisional courts

The legal terminology for these courts is not very straightforward! The High Court is divided into three ‘divisions’, each one dealing with different sorts of cases – the Family Division, the Chancery Division (that deals with property and money cases) and the Queen's Bench Division (that deals with cases involving things like contracts and negligence). Each of these divisions, however, also has the capacity to act as a court to hear appeals from lower courts and, when the judges s
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3.3.3 The Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is always bound by previous decisions of the House of Lords.

The Court of Appeal generally is also bound by its own previous decisions. There are, however, a number of exceptions to this general rule. Lord Greene MR listed these exceptions in Young v Bristol Aeroplane Co. Ltd (1944).

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3.3.2 The styling of legal cases

Activity 8 asks you to read Reading 1 – a short extract from The English Legal System (Slapper and Kelly, 2003) – and identify what you consider are the advantages of allowing the House of Lords to overrule its previous decisions. This extract provides you with examples of instances when the House of Lords has not followed its own previous decisions.

This may be the first time you have read the name of a legal case. Case names are written in a particular style. For example, t
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3.3.1 Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

This is the highest appeal court in the UK and was created by the Constitutional Reform Act 20045. The court became operational on 1 October 2009. Generally permission to appeal must be sought before a case can be brought to the UK Supreme Court.

As the highest court of appeal it hears matters which involve points of law of general public importance and concentrates on cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance. Its decisions are binding on all courts lower in the court
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