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Common Law System

Do you know the meaning of ‘Common Law’ ? This question is important. When this question is asked to a lay-man, he/she would say that ‘Common Law’ means law which is commonly applied. But that is not the meaning of the term ‘Common Law’. ‘Common Law’ is the name of a family of different legal systems of the world which follow common features and traits albeit with small deviations. Those common features which are shared by a member of the family of Common Law are:

  1. authority of the judgments delivered by higher courts and tribunals;
  2. composition of judicial institutions;
  3. adversarial system of court proceedings, and the role of judge, and
  4. the importance of Acts, Statutes, and other legislations passed by competent authorities.

The origin of the ‘Common Law’ is linked to royal power. It was developed as a system in those cases where the peace of the English Kingdom was threatened, or when some other important consideration required, or justified, the intervention of royal power. It seems, essentially, to be a Public Law, for contestations between private individuals did not fall within the purview of the Common Law Courts save to the extent that they involved the interest of the Crown or Kingdom.

Common Law System has influenced the development of many legal systems of the world, such as India, England, U.S.A., Canada, and Australia. Actually, the origin of Common Law is believed to have been in England and so wherever the British Empire spread its sovereignty, the Common Law System was imposed. We will discuss and understand the four common features of this legal system briefly in the following paragraphs.

Authority of the judgments delivered by Higher Courts and Tribunals

In ‘Common Law System’, you would observe that the judgments rendered by the High Courts and Supreme Court (or the Superior Courts) enjoy authority and powerful position. Those judgments have to be obeyed by the lower Courts and Tribunals in a similar case as the decisions of higher courts enjoy authoritative power in law. If the lower courts would not abide by the decisions of the higher courts, the judgments of the lower court can be challenged and it may become a nullity. Do not think that this feature is present in other legal systems. Other legal systems do not place such reliance on the authority of the judgments of the higher Courts. So the judgments of High Courts or Courts of higher/appellate jurisdiction may not be authoritative or binding on lower Courts in a legal system which is not a member of Common Law family. The authority of judgments of the higher Courts is given the technical name ‘judicial precedent’. Thus, we can say that the judgments of higher courts are judicial precedents and they must be followed by the lower Courts in similar cases. For example in India, the judgments of Bombay High Court are ‘judicial precedents’ for all the lower Courts coming under the jurisdiction of that High Court and they are bound by it. India is thus a member of Common Law family of legal systems.

Composition of Judicial Institutions

Second common feature of the Common Law family is that the judges of the Courts are highly skilled persons who have specially studied the discipline of law and possess practical experience in legal administration either as advocates or judges. A judge, in other words, cannot be a lay person or even a scientist. He must be a person of legal background, either as an advocate or a judge or at least with a degree in law. This feature of Common Law makes the judicial institutions a separate set of professional persons. This might be one of the reasons why the judgments rendered by them are technical and based upon the finer details of the bare provisions of law. This leads to a better quality of judgment due to which these judgments carry authority when they are rendered by experienced judges or advocates. As an example, you can say that in India the judges at the trial Court or District Court are selected on the basis of an entrance examination where the minimum eligibility is a degree in law and the judges of High Courts and Supreme Court are selected from among those with at least 10 years of practice as advocates or judges. Persons outside the legal background cannot become judges of the State or Central government. So, the social background of judges in Common Law system is not diverse, but very limited.

Adversarial System of Court Proceedings and the role of Judge

Another feature of Common Law system is that the Court Proceedings are focused on the adversarial nature, where the disputing parties have engaged advocates who act like adversaries in the court of law and each advocate fights tooth and nail against the other in order to win the case. The judge in the court acts like a neutral observer listens patiently to the advocates of each party. You might have seen in the films that the judges say ‘Order, order’, when there is commotion in the court or the advocates start leveling comments. That is not exactly the power of the judge in the ‘Common Law System’, but the judge does not play an active role in going beyond the evidence presented by both the adversary advocates. They depend upon the skills of the advocates who present their best possible case before the neutral judge. It does not matter to the judge whether the truth of the matter has been revealed by the advocates in the case or not. He/she has to be satisfied on the evidence presented by the advocates only. He/she does not take any interest in establishing the truth underlying the claims of the disputing parties.

Acts, Statutes passed by Competent Authorities

A very important feature of Common Law system is that though the legislations passed by competent authorities such as the Parliament and Legislatures are given an authoritative place which is binding on the judges, whenever the judges find any gaps in the Acts or Statutes passed by the Parliament, they can make suitable interpretations to fill the gap in these Acts. In other words, the judges and advocates of the Common Law system would think that the Acts are very abstract and the rules contained in those Acts are very general in nature. These general and abstract rules are incapable in themseves to be applied in all facts and circumstances. Facts of every case would be so peculiar that it would be very difficult to apply the general and abstract form of rule which may need suitable additions and interpretations. That addition and interpretation is as important as the bare provision of general and abstract law.

For example, the punishment prescribed by the Act passed by Indian Parliament for the commission of murder ranges from life imprisonment to death penalty. However, it has not been prescribed in what situations punishment would be life imprisonment or death. The judges have filled this gap and made their own addition into the law by holding that the ‘rarest of rare cases’ would be suitable for the death penalty whereas the others would only get life imprisonment.

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