case law | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Case law is the body of law established in previous court decisions. A synonym for legal precedent. Akin to common law, which springs from tradition and judicial decisions.

Case law is a crucial aspect of the legal system in common law countries, including the United States. It refers to the body of law created by the decisions of judges and courts in previous cases. This law is also commonly known as legal precedent, as the decisions of past cases create a basis for how future cases should be decided.

It plays a significant role in shaping the law because it provides guidance and direction to judges in deciding cases. When a new case arises, judges look to previous cases with similar facts and legal issues to determine how to rule. This practice ensures consistency in the application of the law and prevents arbitrary decision-making.

Legal precedent can be created at various levels of the court system, from trial courts to appellate courts and, ultimately, the highest court in the jurisdiction. The decisions of higher courts typically carry more weight and are binding on lower courts within their jurisdiction.

It is also important because it helps to fill in the gaps left by statutory law. While statutory law provides the framework for the legal system, it cannot cover every possible scenario. It provides a way for judges to apply general legal principles to specific cases and create new rules to fill these gaps.

Moreover, it is constantly evolving as new cases are decided and new legal issues arise. This allows the legal system to adapt to changing societal values and needs. As a result, it has been instrumental in shaping some of the most significant legal and social changes in history, such as civil rights, marriage equality, and abortion rights.

One potential drawback is that it can be subject to interpretation and bias. Different judges may interpret the same case differently, and some judges may bring their own personal beliefs and biases into their decisions. This can lead to inconsistency and unpredictability in the legal system.

These precedents play a vital role in the legal system, providing guidance and direction to judges in deciding cases and filling in the gaps left by statutory law. While it is subject to interpretation and bias, it remains an essential component of the common law system and has been instrumental in shaping the legal landscape throughout history.

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Last Modified: 04/09/2023

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