Your Cart

Common Law Crimes

Common law crimes, also known as judge-made crimes or common law offences, are crimes that are not defined by statute but instead have developed over time through judicial decisions and precedents. These crimes are rooted in the common law legal system, which originated in England and has influenced legal systems in many countries, including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Origins and development: Common law crimes have their roots in English legal history. They developed over centuries as judges made decisions in individual cases and established legal precedents. These decisions were based on common sense, traditional notions of justice, and evolving societal values. As cases accumulated, legal principles emerged that defined what constituted criminal conduct.

Elements and principles: Common law crimes are often defined by their essential elements and legal principles. For example, to be convicted of murder, one typically must have committed the act with malice aforethought, which means a deliberate intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. These elements provide a framework for judges and juries to assess whether a crime has been committed.

Flexibility: Common law crimes offer flexibility because they can adapt to changing circumstances and societal norms. Unlike statutory crimes, which require legislative action to change, common law crimes can evolve through court decisions. For example, rulings in high-profile cases can set new standards for what constitutes a particular crime.

Integration with statutory law: Many legal systems have integrated common law crimes into statutory law. In such cases, legislatures have passed laws codifying certain offences, which can provide more specific definitions and penalties. However, these statutes often incorporate common law principles as a foundation. For example, the common law crimes of assault and battery have been codified to become the statutory crime of common assault under Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

Challenges: Common law crimes can present challenges in terms of clarity and consistency. Since they rely on judicial decisions, there may be some ambiguity in their definitions, and their application can vary between cases and jurisdictions. This can lead to debates about fairness and predictability in the legal system.

Evolution and modernisation: In modern legal systems, common law crimes often coexist with statutory crimes that address contemporary issues and emerging forms of criminal behaviour, such as cybercrime and environmental offences. Legal systems continually adapt to societal changes by updating and expanding their criminal codes.

Role of precedent: Precedent plays a crucial role in common law crimes. Courts frequently look to previous decisions when determining the outcome of cases. This reliance on precedent helps maintain consistency and predictability in the legal system.

In summary, common law crimes are offences that have evolved over time through judicial decisions and are based on legal principles and traditions. They continue to shape the criminal justice system in many countries, often alongside statutory offences, reflecting a balance between tradition and the need to address contemporary issues. The flexibility of common law crimes allows for adaptation to changing circumstances while relying on established legal principles.

You can learn more about this topic with our Criminal Law notes.

Featured Collection

Our Partners