English Law: An introduction

The English Legal System

One of the major European legal systems, Roman law being the other,  English law has spread to many other countries, including former English colonies such as the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

English law has an evolving history dating from the local customs of the Anglo-Saxons, traces of which survived until 1925.  After the Norman Conquest they grew up, side by side with the Saxon shire courts, the feudal courts of the barons and the ecclesiastical (church) courts.  From the king’s council developed the royal courts, presided over by professional judges, which gradually absorbed the jurisdictions (legal powers) of the baronial and ecclesiastical courts.  By 1250 the royal judges had amalgamated the various local customs into the system of common law – that is, law common to the whole country. A second system known as equity developed in the Court of Chancery, in which the Lord Chancellor considered petitions.

In the 17th and 18th centuries common law absorbed the Law Merchant, the international code of mercantile customs.  During the 19th century virtually the whole of English law was reformed by legislation; for example, the number of capital offences was greatly reduced.

Judicial Precedents

A unique feature of English law is the doctrine of judicial precedents, whereby the reported decisions of the courts form a binding source of law for future decisions. A judge is bound by decisions of courts of superior jurisdiction but not necessarily by those of inferior courts.

Classification of Law


The criminal law is concerned with offences against society at large – crimes.  Prosecuted by the State.  Punish and deter.


Civil law is concerned with disputes between private parties, for example, consumer and supplier, employer and employee.  Injured party sues.  Damages or injunction.

Principal areas of non-statutory civil law

Contract; torts (wrongs); trusts.  Torts include negligence, nuisance, trespass, defamation, and inducing breach of contract.

Sources of Law

The principal sources of UK law are:

    Statutes: Legislation from the UK Parliament and devolved parliaments. ‘Common’ law: law made through principles established in cases over the centuries during the standardisation of law throughout England and Wales from the eleventh century onwards.

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For more information on:

  • Statutes
  • Sources of statutes
  • Formation of statutes
  • Delegated legislation
  • Case Law and Precedent
  • Ratio decidendi
  • Ratio overruled
  • Decision reversed
  • Legal Personality
  • Types of legal person
  • Corporations
  • Key Points
  • Useful Links