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What is English Common Law?

The Legal English School's Chris Mitchell examines the origins and development of a legal system that has been adopted around the world.

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The Foundations and Evolution of English Common Law

English common law is a legal system characterised by the development of law through judicial decisions, which are recorded and used as precedents for future cases. This system has profoundly influenced legal frameworks in many countries, especially those that were once part of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Understanding the foundations and evolution of English common law reveals how historical practices continue to shape modern jurisprudence.


Origins and Development

The roots of English common law can be traced back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. Before the Normans, Anglo-Saxon England had various regional laws. The Normans centralized legal administration, leading to the formation of a more unified system., The King’s Court (Curia Regis), established at Westminster near London was unique as it was set up for the entire country. Unlike many legal systems of the time, English common law initially focused on procedural remedies rather than substantive rights.  This centralisation was crucial as it laid the groundwork for a cohesive legal framework across England.

Henry II

One of the most significant milestones in the development of English common law was the establishment of the royal courts by King Henry II in the 12th century. These courts began to standardise legal procedures and compile decisions, which formed the basis of common law. Judges travelled on circuits, applying the king's law uniformly across the land, which helped to eliminate regional disparities in legal practice.

Henry II's establishment of permanent professional courts at Westminster and across the counties fundamentally altered the relationship between the King, the Church, the State, and society. These reforms were pivotal in shaping the law's role in national identity and the sovereign state's evolution.

Expansion and Influence

The common law, "common" to all the king's courts across England, was a product of the practices of the English kings' courts following the Norman Conquest in 1066. As the British Empire expanded, it exported the English legal system to its colonies, many of which retain the common law system today.

Modern Developments
The United Kingdom's legal systems experienced significant integration into the European Union (EU) law system beginning in 1973, impacting domestic law. However, with the UK's exit from the EU in 2020, there has been a shift back towards the traditional common law system. The Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights have also influenced the UK's legal landscape.

English common law has been a dynamic and evolving entity, adapting to the changing needs of society while maintaining its core principles. Its influence is evident in the legal systems of many countries around the world, a testament to its enduring legacy.


Would you like to learn more about the legal system? Take our specialist course English Legal System and the Common Law or contact us to learn face-to-face and online.

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