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Sources of law

This content applies to England & Wales

Main sources of law in England and Wales.

There are four main sources of law in England and Wales - domestic legislation, common law, European Union (EU) law and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

EU law and ECHR

The ECHR is international law that was incorporated into domestic legislation by the Human Rights Act 1998. Courts must apply other laws in accordance with the Convention where possible, but where this is not possible, it is for Parliament and not the courts to change the law. The EU can require governments of Member States to introduce legislation in certain areas, and the law in those areas must be applied in accordance with EU legal principles.

Domestic legislation

Legislation covers both primary and secondary legislation. Primary legislation has been debated and passed by Parliament and includes both Government sponsored bills and private members' bills. When passed, bills become 'Acts', but are also commonly referred to as 'statutes'. 

Governments also have the power to introduce secondary legislation. This is usually done by issuing regulations called 'statutory instruments' under provisions contained in primary legislation without the need for an issue to be debated fully by Parliament.

Common law

Common law  dates back to the eleventh century when judges attempted to apply law that was 'common' to the whole country. They did this by adapting Norman law and local Saxon custom. There were many defects in the system and to overcome injustice in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, people began to petition the King. The role of hearing petitions was passed to the Lord Chancellor and eventually to the Court of Chancery, which dispensed justice known as 'equity'. As a result, two systems of justice existed side by side. The Judicature Acts 1873-75 created a single system to administer both common law and equity. However, the content and rules of common law and equity remain separate.

Both common law and equity have been developed over the centuries by judicial precedents and they are commonly referred to as 'case law'. A judge's decision in a case becomes a 'precedent' and is binding on similar cases heard in courts at the same level or lower down the legal system hierarchy.

Other matters referred to in the judgment but not directly related to the case are called 'obiter dicta' and may be persuasive in later cases but are not binding. Consequently, courts at the same level or lower should take case law into account, but they are not bound by it.

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