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Common vs. Statutory Law: Which Prevails in Court Cases?

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Are you confused about the difference between common law and statutory law? Do you wonder which one takes precedence in court cases?

Common law refers to a body of law developed and evolved through court decisions and legal precedents, based on judicial interpretations. While statutory law refers to laws created and enacted by legislative bodies, such as parliaments or congresses, and are codified in statutes.

Common vs. Statutory Law

Common LawStatutory Law
Common law refers to the body of law developed and evolved through court decisions and legal precedents, rather than through legislation. It is based on legal principles established by judges in previous cases.Statutory law, also known as legislation or statutory codes, is law created and enacted by legislative bodies, such as parliaments or congresses. It is codified in statutes and written laws.
It is derived from judicial decisions made by courts and relies on the doctrine of stare decisis, which means adhering to precedent and applying legal principles from previous cases to current ones.It originates from legislation passed by legislative bodies and can include laws, acts, codes, ordinances, or regulations created to address specific issues or regulate certain activities.
Common law has more flexibility and adaptability as it evolves and develops through judicial interpretations and decisions, allowing for the law to respond to changing societal needs and circumstances.Statutory law tends to be more rigid and less flexible, as it is created through legislative processes and requires subsequent legislation to be modified or updated.
It is typically applied in cases where there is no specific statute or law addressing a particular issue, relying on legal principles and precedents to guide the court’s decision-making.It is applied to regulate specific areas of law or to provide clear rules and guidelines for various activities, ensuring consistency and predictability in legal outcomes.
Common law is developed and established by the judiciary, including appellate courts, which have the power to interpret and apply the law in specific cases.Statutory law is created and enacted by legislative bodies that have the authority to pass laws and establish legal requirements for the general population to follow.
It can interact with statutory law when statutes are ambiguous or need interpretation, and courts rely on common law principles to clarify or apply the statute in specific cases.It can also interact with common law when statutes specifically address or modify common law principles, superseding or altering the common law in those specific areas.

What is Common Law?

Common law refers to a legal system where laws are developed and evolved through court decisions and legal precedents, rather than through legislation. It is based on the principle of stare decisis, which means adhering to precedent and applying legal principles established in previous cases to current ones.

Common law is built on the cumulative body of judicial decisions and interpretations, forming a framework of legal principles that guide future court rulings. It is an integral part of the legal systems in countries like the United States and England.

What is Statutory Law?

Statutory law refers to laws that are enacted by a legislative body, such as a parliament or congress. It is a formal and codified system of laws created through the legislative process.

Statutory laws are written and published in statutes or acts and provide specific rules and regulations that must be followed within a jurisdiction. These laws cover a wide range of subjects, including criminal offenses, civil rights, taxation, contracts, property, and many others.

Violations of statutory law can lead to legal consequences, such as fines, penalties, or imprisonment, depending on the nature and severity of the offense.

Which precedence does the court give to Common Law or Statutory Law?

The precedence given to common law or statutory law can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of a case. However, in general, statutory law takes precedence over common law. This means that when a statute or legislative provision directly addresses a particular issue or conflict, the court will typically apply and enforce the statutory law rather than relying on common law principles.

Statutory law is considered the primary source of law and is given deference as it represents the will of the legislative body. However, if a statute is ambiguous or silent on a specific matter, the court may turn to common law principles and precedents to interpret and fill in any gaps in the statutory law.

Cases where Common Law has been overruled by statute

  1. Same-Sex Marriage: In many jurisdictions, common law traditionally defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman. However, statutes have been enacted to legalize and recognize same-sex marriage, effectively overriding the common law definition.
  2. Workers’ Compensation: Common law principles regarding liability and compensation for workplace injuries were modified by the introduction of workers’ compensation statutes. These laws provide a no-fault system that replaces the need for injured workers to prove negligence on the part of their employers.
  3. Landlord-Tenant Laws: Common law principles related to the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants have been superseded by statutory laws in many jurisdictions. These laws govern areas such as rent control, eviction procedures, security deposits, and tenant rights, providing a comprehensive framework for landlord-tenant relationships.
  4. Consumer Protection: Statutory laws often provide specific protections for consumers in areas such as product liability, unfair trade practices, and consumer rights. These statutes may supersede or modify common law principles regarding contracts or warranties to provide greater safeguards for consumers.

Examples of how Common Law and Statutory Laws work together

  • Criminal Law: Statutory laws define criminal offenses and their associated penalties. However, common law principles play a role in interpreting and applying those statutes. For instance, statutory law may define theft as the unlawful taking of another person’s property. Common law principles help determine elements like intent, ownership, and the value of the stolen property, which can affect the severity of the offense and the appropriate punishment.
  • Contract Law: Statutory laws provide the legal framework for contracts, outlining requirements such as offer, acceptance, and consideration. Common law principles are then applied to interpret and enforce contracts based on the specific circumstances of the case. For example, if a contract is silent on a particular issue, common law principles may be used to fill in the gaps and determine the parties’ rights and obligations.
  • Tort Law: Statutory laws define various torts, such as negligence or product liability. Common law principles are applied to determine whether the elements of a particular tort have been met, such as the existence of a duty of care, breach of that duty, causation, and damages. The statutes provide a legal framework, while common law principles guide the application and interpretation of those laws.

When can a case be brought under both Common Law and Statutory Law?

A case can be brought under both common law and statutory law if the facts of the case satisfy the requirements of both. For example, a common law claim for breach of contract may also be brought under statutory law if the contract was made in interstate commerce.

In general, common law claims are those that arise from relationships between private parties, while statutory claims are those that arise from violations of public laws.

Key differences between Common Law and Statutory Law

Common Law:

  1. Origin: Common law derives from judicial decisions and precedents established by courts.
  2. Development: It evolves over time through the application and interpretation of legal principles in individual cases.
  3. Flexibility: Common law allows for flexibility and adaptability as it can be modified or expanded based on new circumstances or changing societal norms.

Statutory Law:

  1. Origin: Statutory law is created by legislative bodies, such as parliaments or congresses, through the enactment of statutes or acts.
  2. Formality: It is formally written and codified, providing specific rules and regulations.
  3. Stability: Statutory law provides stability and uniformity as it remains relatively constant unless amended or repealed by the legislative body.
differences between Common Law and Statutory Law


In conclusion, common law and statutory law are two distinct legal systems with their own characteristics. Common law evolves through judicial decisions and precedents, providing flexibility and adaptability. It relies on the role of judges in interpreting and expanding legal principles. While statutory law is created by legislative bodies, providing stability and uniformity through formally written rules and regulations. Violations of statutory law carry legal consequences.

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