The distinctive feature of common law is that it represents the law of the courts as expressed in judicial decisions. The grounds for deciding cases are found in precedents provided by past decisions, as contrasted to the civil law system, which is based on statutes and prescribed texts. Besides the system of judicial precedents, other characteristics of common law are trial by jury and the doctrine of the supremacy of the law. Originally, supremacy of the law meant that not even the king was above the law; today it means that acts of governmental agencies are subject to scrutiny in ordinary legal proceedings.
Judicial precedents derive their force from the doctrine of stare decisis [Lat., = stand by the decided matter], i.e., that the previous decisions of the highest court in the jurisdiction are binding on all other courts in the jurisdiction. Changing conditions, however, soon make most decisions inapplicable except as a basis for analogy, and a court must therefore often look to the judicial experience of the rest of the English-speaking world. This gives the system flexibility, while general acceptance of certain authoritative materials provides a degree of stability. Nevertheless, in many instances, the courts have failed to keep pace with social developments and it has become necessary to enact statutes to bring about needed changes; indeed, in recent years statutes have superseded much of common law, notably in the fields of commercial, administrative, and criminal law. Typically, however, in statutory interpretation the courts have recourse to the doctrines of common law. Thus increased legislation has limited but has not ended judicial supremacy.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.