Common law is a body of unwritten laws based on legal precedents established by the courts. Common law influences the decision-making process in unusual cases where the outcome cannot be determined based on existing statutes or written rules of law. The U.S. common-law system evolved from a British tradition that spread to North America during the 17th- and 18th-century colonial period.
Common law, also known as case law, relies on detailed records of similar situations and statutes because there is no official legal code which can apply to a case at hand. Initially, common law was founded on common sense as reflected in the social customs. Over the centuries, it was supplanted by the statute law (rules enacted by a legislative body such as Parliament) and clarified by the judgements of the higher courts (that set precedent for all courts to follow in similar cases). These precedents are recognized, affirmed, and enforced by subsequent court decisions, continually expanding the common law. In contrast to civil law (which is based on a rigid code of rules), common law is based on broad principles. And where every defendant who enters a criminal trial under civil law is presumed guilty until proven innocent, under common law he or she is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
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