A History of English Common Law

Topics: Common law, Law, English law Pages: 9 (4003 words) Published: April 16, 2002
The origin of English Common in the 12th century was sparked by the death of King Henry I in 1135. The nephew of Henry I was Stephen, and he was acknowledged to be the rightful king, but the magnates and such had sworn loyalty to Henry's daughter, Matilda. The entire reign of Stephen, which lasted from 1135 to 1154, was spent fighting with Matilda and her French husband. Upon Stephen's death the son of Matilda, Henry II, became king in 1154. It was from here on that the King started to take noticeable interest in the dealings of the court system, and put in to place a royal system instead of allowing the lords to deal with all matters in feudal courts.1 According to F. W. Maitland, …The reign of Henry II is of supreme importance in the history of our law, and its importance is due to the action of the central power, to reforms ordained by the king. …He was forever busy with new devices for enforcing the law. The term "common" is used because the laws established are just that, common to every jurisdiction and administered through a central court.2 When Innocent III ruled, the term was used in the church as well as in the royal courts to distinguish ordinary law from the law applicable to particular provincial churches.3 The term "common" also stems from the fact that the law was "characterized by processes of categorization and routinization, in particular the routine royal treatment of a wide range of cases."4 Arthur Hogue sums up the common law by using two opposite views. What the common law is not, and what it is. He says The common law is not a written code. …the principles of common law have always eluded complete embodiment in any code or collection of writings. Judicial decision recorded on the plea rolls of the common-law courts, declaratory statures, and learned treatises on the common law may all express the principles of the common law, but these writings never comprise its totality.5 Another rule that does not apply to the common law is that the common law does not apply to a single group, for example the church. Therefore it is unlike the canon law. Third, the common law is not local custom for everyone, and it is not identified along with the rules of any of the local courts. Specialized rules are not part of common law. Rogue goes on to explain what the common law is by using five simple explanations. First, the common law is a "body of general rules" that apply universally throughout the realm. Second, royal courts enforce the laws. The treatise called Fleta states that "the Crown asserted a general responsibility for the judicial work of every secular court in the land." Third, the laws are made in reaction to actual legal controversies, as opposed to the whim of the lawmakers. Fourth, the jury selected becomes increasingly more knowledgeable about the facts and particulars of a certain case. Finally, the supremacy of law is very important to the tradition of common law. All subjects are held responsible for the laws decided, and are all subject to examination. These five principles of common law briefly explain what common law is.6 To differentiate between how the laws of England changed after King Henry II, a comparison of the court system can be used. Local, ecclesiastical, and borough courts decided cases in the old system of English law. Each of these courts could render very different decisions based on the same case and it was acceptable. The common law courts can be listed as Common Pleas, Seignorial courts, King's Bench, and Exchequer.7 The local courts, or courts of the counties, began to lose their importance as the royal courts, the Common Pleas, began to extend jurisdiction. The people of the area created the local courts; the royalty had nothing to do with it, so these new Common Pleas courts took away certain feelings of local pride. Therefore, these common courts were the most difficult to establish, and for many years many of the hundreds and such...
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