English Law

English law is the legal system of England and Wales, and is the basis of common law legal systems used in the Republic of Ireland and in most Commonwealth countries and the United States except Louisiana (as opposed to civil law or pluralist systems in use in other countries). It was exported to Commonwealth countries while the British Empire was established and maintained, and it forms the basis of the jurisprudence of most of those countries. English law prior to the American Revolution is still part of the law of the United States through reception statutes, except in Louisiana, and provides the basis for many American legal traditions and policies, though it has no superseding jurisdiction.

English law in its strictest sense applies within the jurisdiction of England and Wales. Whilst Wales now has a devolved Assembly, any legislation which that Assembly enacts is enacted in particular circumscribed policy areas defined by the Government of Wales Act 2006, other legislation of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, or by Orders in Council given under the authority of the 2006 Act. Furthermore that legislation is, as with any by-law made by any other body within England and Wales, interpreted by the undivided judiciary of England and Wales.

The essence of English common law is that it is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of legal precedent (stare decisis) to the facts before them. A decision of the highest appeal court in England and Wales, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (formerly the House of Lords), is binding on every other court in the hierarchy, and they will follow its directions. For example, the crime of murder does not exist as a result of an Act of Parliament but rather it is a common law crime. It is a crime by virtue of the constitutional authority of the courts and their previous decisions. Common law can be amended or repealed by Parliament; murder, by way of example, carries a mandatory life sentence today, but had previously allowed the death penalty.

English courts recognise the primacy of statute law over common law where the two overlap. So, for example, in the criminal law case of R v. Rimmington (2005) UKHL 63 Lord Bingham said "Where Parliament has defined the ingredients of an offence . . . it must ordinarily be proper that conduct falling within that definition should be prosecuted for the statutory offence and not for a common law offence".

England and Wales are constituent countries of the United Kingdom, which is a member of the European Union. Hence, EU law is a part of English law. The European Union consists mainly of countries which use civil law and so the civil law system is also in England and Wales in this form. The European Court of Justice can direct English and Welsh courts on the meaning of areas of law in which the EU has passed legislation.

The oldest written law currently in force is the Distress Act, part of the Statute of Marlborough, 1267 (52 Hen. 3). Three sections of Magna Carta, originally signed in 1215 and a landmark in the development of English law, are extant but arguably they date to the consolidation of the Act in 1297.

Read more about English Law:  England and Wales As A Distinct Jurisdiction, Common Law

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