Non-statutory law

From Academic Kids

Non-statutory law is the basis of the common law system. Its authority rests not on legislation passed by Parliament and/or Administration and eventually codified, but rather tradition, custom, and especially precedent. It is recognized within the United States Constitution as being essentially inviolable; however, as customs and traditions change and evolve, the common, non-statutory law must change and evolve with them, and occasionally be amended by statute.

A recent example of the above would be the development of the legal concept of marital rape. Such an offense was unheard of a half-century ago. It was not that legislatures had passed an extensive body of law stating explicitly that sex within a married couple was by definition not rape, but rather it was customary that one of the prerequisites of marriage was that a man could have sexual relations with his wife whenever he so desired. With the increasing awareness of spousal abuse, and an increasing number of married couples living apart, often as a prelude to divorce, it came to be recognized that it was no longer reasonable or desirable for the law to ignore the possibility of rape within marriage, which when pushed to the extreme made the law powerless against a man whose wife had left him and filed for divorce yet threatened her at her new home and terrorized her into having sexual relations with him, even if their divorce were to be finalized the next day. Statutes have been enacted to address this problem in essentially all of the English-speaking jurisdictions of the world, which is where the common law holds sway most generally.

The huge collection of "law books" seen in most law offices is for the most part not a compilation of statutory law; in most U.S. states, for example, the collection of currently valid and enforceable statutory law would take up one moderately-sized bookshelf. The rest are primarily the records of past trials used as precedents. An important aspect of the common law (and, indeed, of statutory law as well) is the concept of stare decisis, a Latin term meaning "let the decision stand". In other words, once a decision has been rendered in a past case regarding a law in question or one very similar to it, in absence of any new reasoning or evidence, the law should be intepreted the same way again. In the United States, generally such new reasoning comes from new decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, which sometimes reverses the decisions of past Supreme Courts. Perhaps the best example of this is the case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, where changes in society occurring between 1896 and 1954 dictated that the Court override the clear precedent, Plessy v. Ferguson. Brown became the basis for a new body of non-statutory law arising from it, even though it was not a new piece of legislation nor a new constitutional amendment but rather a re-interpretation of an existing constitutional amendment.

Thus, the two main types of non-statutory law are the common law of tradition and custom, and the similar, related concept of legal precedent. Both are very important, but, in practice, neither is inviolable.

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