statute, in law, a formal, written enactment by the authorized powers of a state. The term is usually not applied to a written constitution but is restricted to the enactments of a legislature. Statute law is to be distinguished chiefly from common law, which may be defined as the body of legal rules derived from judicial decisions and custom. On most of the European continent all (or nearly all) the law is statutory and each field is subsumed by a code. In England and the United States, however, common law retains great importance, but with the expansion of government regulation there has been an immense growth in the statute law of those countries. In order to guide the courts many important statutes contain (usually in a preamble) a statement of the abuses that the legislation is intended to cure or of the general legislative intent. Statutes are classified in various ways. Public statutes (e.g., those establishing crimes) are universal in application, while private statutes (e.g., one compensating a named person for injury) are limited. Public statutes may be local, i.e., affecting only part of the area over which the legislature has authority, or general. Statutes that explain or clarify previous enactments or rules of common law are sometimes called declaratory statutes.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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