Common law systems are based on precedence. This means that judicial decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. A case that shares similar circumstances to a previous court ruling will be decided in the same manner. This allows for consistency and predictability by judges. It will also attempt to eliminate any bias or other interpretation of the law by judges.
Statutory law is a more formal collection of written rules and regulations that are enforceable by law. Statutory law will mainly consist of laws that either mandate or prohibit specific information. Statutory law will interact with the common law when judges are making decisions. The main distinction between common law systems and statutory law is the way in which laws are created. While the common law is developed through judge’s decisions, statutory law will be created from a legislative process that codifies new laws.
Judges will use a combination of precedent and statutory law when ruling on cases. For the most part, contract law, tort law, and property law do not exist in statutory law, but are rooted in the common law. However, there are certain issues, such as the international sale of goods in contract law, that will be ruled by statutory law. In this case, the judges must research past precedence, as well as statutory law, in order to make a decision about a specific case. Basically, decisions will be made based on precedence while adhering to statutory law.
Statutory law gives general, broad statements of policy, while the common law will put this policy into practice and define its limits. This means that the common law is absolutely necessary to interpreting statutory law. Many times a law can be vague or it can fail to define important terms. This is where common law will expand on the exact definition of statutory law and exactly define terms. For example, tort law may not list in statute all of the damages that a plaintiff can obtain from a defendant.
Common law will allow the wronged party to sue medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc. Even though this is not explicitly stated in statutory law, common law sets out damages the plaintiff can obtain through precedent. By making decisions based on precedent, courts are able to stay consistent. This ensures that the fact of a case will not be treated differently under different situations. In civil law systems that rely primarily on statutory law, judges’ bias can sometimes become an issue.