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The first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on common law:

Common law (also known as case law or precedent) is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals that decide individual cases, as opposed to statutes adopted through the legislative process or regulations issued by the executive branch.

From this description, it sounds like there can be no authoritative written laws in common law systems because the only source of law is what has previously happened in court rooms. On the other hand, users on this site seem to agree about the specific details of common law systems without the need for citing cases.

In common law systems, are there specific laws? Are they written down? Or are there only previous court rulings?

The Wikipedia article does refer to laws written by common law legislatures:

For that reason, civil law statutes tend to be somewhat more detailed than statutes written by common law legislatures—but, conversely, that tends to make the statute more difficult to read (the United States tax code is an example).

It also describes New York law regarding contracts as highly detailed, which suggests a written document. Both are these greatly add to my confusion.

My best guess is that in common law systems there are documents which describe precedents that have been set but that these documents have no legal weight themselves. I didn't think there were unwritten laws in the United States though so I'm not at all confident about that guess.

  • You mean, apart from going to law school? – Dale M Aug 7 '15 at 8:08
  • I mean it fairly literally. Is common law codified in writing? Or are there only non-authoritative writings that describe what precedents have been set? – Praxeolitic Aug 7 '15 at 8:12
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In brief:

In common law systems, are there specific laws?

Yes.

Are they written down?

Yes, here are the laws of Australia and New Zealand.

Or are there only previous court rulings?

No.

Elaboration:

Broadly (and rather vaguely) speaking there are 3 sources of law in a common law jurisdiction:

  1. Statute law which consists of the Acts passed by the legislature
  2. Administrative law which consists of the rules and regulations made by the administrative arm of government under the powers granted them by the constitution or delegated by the legislature
  3. Case law which consists of the decisions made by the courts; this can be decisions based on
    1. Long-standing precedents whose origins are lost in the mists of time
    2. Interpretations of statute and administrative law

It is important to remember that the courts only get involved to resolve conflicts (civil or criminal) - they do not unilaterally make decisions on the law. Judges (if they are wise) never give opinions on the law - that is the role of solicitors and barristers who are the paid advocates of the parties.

The role of a judge is to decide how the law fits the circumstances of the particular case before them. To do this they interpret the statutes, administrative rules and decisions made by other judges on similar cases. The decision of a superior court is binding on a subordinate court, persuasive on an equivalent court or a court in a parallel jurisdiction and subject to review by a superior court.

The overwhelming majority of cases do not make new case law - most of the arguments in court are about why (or why not) the established law applies to the current facts; they are not about what the law is.

Occasionally a decision will be made that modifies the previous interpretation or even more rarely represents a paradigm shift - those are the cases that matter!

  • AustLII actually contains both common law and statutes, which are not the same thing. – jimsug Aug 7 '15 at 12:49
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    I never said it was just the common law: I said it was the law. – Dale M Aug 7 '15 at 12:51
  • Oh yeah, fair enough. – jimsug Aug 7 '15 at 12:52
  • @einpoklum mind commenting what sort of edits you made? The answer is about 4 years old... – A.fm. Aug 29 at 11:33
  • There's also short-standing precedent whose origins are clearly found in other case law. – phoog Aug 29 at 13:24

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