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Case law (precedental law) is the body of judge-made law and legal decisions
that interprets prior case law, statutes and other legal authority such as
doctrinal writings by legal scholars such as the Corpus Juris Secundum,
Halsbury's Laws of England or the doctinal writings found in the Recueil
Dalloz and law commissions such as the American Law Institute.
In the civil law tradition, case law formally plays a minor role compared to
the status of the civil code, however judicial interpretation of the civil
code has interpreted the legal meaning of the code provision clarifying them
and providing for unforeseen developments and as such is often referred to
as a juriprudence constante. The highest court that can interpret and
overturn decisions of lower appellate courts in France is known as the Cour
In the common law tradition case law regulates, via precedents, how laws are
to be understood, based on how prior cases have been decided. Case law
governs the impact court decisions have on future cases. Unlike most civil
law systems, common law systems follow the doctrine of stare decesis in
which a lower court usually make decisions which are consistent with
previous decisions of higher courts. However, if a lower court judge acts
against precedent and the case is not taken to appeal it will still stand.
Generally speaking there is no direct oversight that appeal courts have over
a court of record. This may occur more frequently than has been documented
as an appeal is usually quite expensive to prepare. Some judges are also
known to rule against precedent on principle. A judge (or even an interim
appeal court) may rule against a precedent that is outdated; she may feel
the decision needs to be overturned due to more sophisticated legal
reasoning. Such a judge may wish to help the law evolve by ruling against
precedent and forcing the case to appeal. Then, the appeal court will have
an opportunity to review the lower court's decision and may adopt the lower
court's reasoning thereby overturning previous cases. This may also happen
several times as the case works its way through intermediate appellate
jurisdictions. A famous example of this evolution in jurisprudence was by
Lord Denning, first of the High Court of England and Wales, later of the
House of Lords in his development of the concept of estoppel starting in the
world renowned High Trees case: Central London Property Trust Ltd. v. High
Trees House Ltd.  K.B. 130.
The different roles of case law in civil and common law traditions creates
differences in the way that courts render their decisions. Common law courts
generally explain in detail the rationale behind their decisions with
numerous citations to previous decisions and other authority (called ratio
decidendi). By constrast, decisions in the courts of most civil law
jurisdictions are generally very short, referring only to the statutes used.
The reason for this difference is that in these civil law jurisdictions the
traditions is that the reader should be able to deduce the logic from the
decision. They also render their decisions so that in some cases it is
somewhat difficult to apply previous decisions to future ones. Some
so-called civil law jurisdictions such as Scotland, Quebec and Louisiana do
not follow these traditions, as they are jurisdictions that have been
influenced heavily by the Anglo-American common law tradition, however their
substantive law is firmly rooted in the civil law tradition. Because of
their position between the two main systems of law these types of legal
systems are sometimes referred to as mixed systems of law.
Another difference is that law professors in common law traditions play a
much smaller role in developing case law than professors in civil law
traditions. Because court decisions in civil law traditions are brief and
not amenable to establishing precedent, much of the exposition of the law in
civil law traditions is done by academics rather than by judges, this is
called doctrine and may be published in treatises or in journals such as
Recueil Dalloz in France. In the common law the practice has evolved in the
other direction, thus at the turn of the twentieth century it was very rare
to see an academic writer quoted in a legal decision (except perhaps for
Blackstone). Today academic writers can be cited in legal decisions as
authority, often they are cited when judges are attempting to find reasoning
that has yet to be adopted by any other court or because their restatement
of the law is more compelling than the ratio of precedent. Thus common law
systems are adopting one of the approaches long common in civil law jurisdictions.
In federal or multi-juristictional law systems there may exist conflicts
between the various lower appellate courts. Sometimes these differences may
not be resolved and it may be necessary to distinguish on how the law has
been applied in one district, province, division or appellate department.
Usually only an appeal accepted by the court of last resort will resolve
such differences and for many reasons such appeals are often not undertaken.