the difference between a statute and a law

Discussion in 'English Only' started by milkalove, May 30, 2006.

  1. milkalove

    milkalove Senior Member

    United States
    Munich, Bavaria
    Hi everyone,
    Can anyone explain to me the exact difference between a statute and a law?
    I know you use "law" when talking about general rules of a game ie. the law of a game.
    But in a legal context, how are they different?

    Thanks a lot for your help.
  2. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    In England, 'Law' is divided into two main types: case law and statute law.

    'Statute law' is the law (statutes) that has been issued by a process of parliamentary debate and royal consent.

    'Case law' is the body of law that has been established by the higher courts. If a high-ranking court decides that a principle of law exists, then all lower courts must treat that principle as law.

    A high ranking court can change its previous decision on a matter of law, and case law can be changed by statute law.

    As an example, in England no Parliament and no monarch has ever made a law that it is illegal to murder someone. Instead, that principle of law has existed in the courts as case law since before records began.

    The same distinction between case law and statute law broadly speaking applies throughout the English-speaking world.

    I think that on the continent of Europe, although previous court decisions are not categorized as law, still a lot of respect is given to the thinking behind previous court decisions. In a sense, then, previous court decisions can be said to bind a court on the continent as well as in England.
  3. BDMCG New Member

    English USA
    In America, a statute and a law have no essential difference. This may differ state by state. But generally, a statute is synonymous with a law.
  4. . 1 Banned

    Ferntree Gully
    Australian Australia
    A Statute Law is a type of law. A specific type of law.
    Law is the general reference to a set of rules comprised of a number of different types of law including Statute Law.

    If it was easy to under stand we would not be ruled by lawyers.
  5. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I agree-- and welcome you to the forums, BDMCG. Law is the inclusive term, and our laws are enacted, not inherited from pre-literate times-- those basic taken-for-granted "first principles" of Law are called the Maxims of Jurisprudence.

    se16teddy's point may apply to the American legal system as far as the language professionals use-- most of our country is based on English Common Law, after all.

    But knowledgeable laymen tend to talk about precedents instead of "case law" when contrasting legislated Acts with the binding interpretations of appelate and supreme courts.

    It's in the concept of interpretation that we show a synonymity of statute and law-- "statutory" law is not supplanted by the "higher courts," except when it is overturned. In all other cases it is simply (or complexly) interpreted.
  6. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    I admit that English speakers are not always aware of US / UK differences. However, I remain to be convinced that there is a substantial difference between the UK and US use of the word 'case law'. For example, Wikipedia has a page called 'United States Case Law' - presumably written more for interested laymen than for lawyers.
  7. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I don't think the distinction between precedent (or case law) and statutory law really goes to the question of distinction between law and statute.

    Law is the more generic term because it goes beyond the legal system-- "laws of physics," for example.

    A statute is an enacted law. Case law is based on statutes, which are validated or invalidated or otherwise interpreted by higher courts. And when lawyers use "case law" they cite precedent-- which is simply the litigated history of statutes, or the way statutes have been applied to certain situations as opposed to others.

    In no way is a law referred to during litigation, that is not also a statue. It is not made a different entity by having been cited in legal arguments-- a citation that refers, by the way, not to the laws in question but to the outcomes of trials. "Case law" doesn't talk about "article 6 sectionn 11 paragraph 24 of the such-and-such Code," it refers to "the State of Michigan vs Foxfirebrand," and the case here is not a law but the records of a legal action, i.e. a hearing, a trial. or an appeal of same. And a definite miscarriage of justice, I might add-- but who cares, there's nothing in Michigan I need to attend to in person in the foreseeable future.
  8. milkalove

    milkalove Senior Member

    United States
    Munich, Bavaria
    Thanks for this wonderful explanation. Now it finally makes sense. :)
  9. englishman Senior Member

    English England
    I'm not sufficiently familiar with US law to dismiss this description, but I'm pretty certain it is simply plain wrong when applied to UK law. "Case law" in the UK is also known as "judge made" law; this need not be related to any particular statute (which in the UK means the laws enacted by Parliament).

    For example, the concept of "promissory estoppel" in English law derives largely from Lord Denning's ruling in the High Trees House case, but he didn't have to rely on any statute to elaborate it.

    Also, in English law, there is (or was, maybe it's changed now) the concept of a "subsidiary source" for law, in particular ancient customs. If a custom can be shown to have existed since "time immemorial" (1189 for the sake of definiteness) then it will be upheld as law by a court. That also is not statute based law.
  10. river Senior Member

    U.S. English
    There are three types of laws:
    • statute law—laws made by Parliament (or Congress) (all crimes and some civil matters fall under statute law)
    • common law—inherited law that is not written down as legislation but is recorded as case law
    • case law—judges' decisions in particular cases, both criminal and civil.
  11. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Again, I'm speaking of the usage in the U.S., where we have a micromanaging style of legislation. You say "or Congress," but the site you cite does not-- it seems to be entirely about Australia.

    The problem here is that "law" is being used in the most generic sense, and when you really look at what is involved with "appelate law" or "tort law," (I pick two which haven't been mentioned yet), invariably what the "law" involved boils down to is court decisions, which in turn arise with regard to cases under litigation-- cases in which each side cites statutes to make its case.

    And no, judges in our system don't have such peremptory powers, except in Louisiana which devolves in part from the Napoleonic Code instead of English Common Law. We don't, as a nation, go back to "time immemorial."

    If there is a footpath through someone's property in the U.S., for example, he can fence his property off one day, and the people who've used the path have to find another way. I've noticed in researching genealogical sites, that some of the places my ancestors were buried are now rockpiles whose mere existence is an impediment to anyone who wants to develop the property. No statutory law is involved, but whatever family is descended from the bones under that rockpile (the venerable Mainwarings, let's say) simply file an action, and the matter gets hung up in court for "time immemorial." No wonder my British forebears gave up and crossed the pond, where they could plat everything from scratch and get easements settled on record for once and for all-- to be emended as needed, or finessed through "eminent domain," but in our system this is all done by a process based on this or that paragraph, article, section, title-- of a statutory Code.

    We made our "Parliament" supreme, hindered only by its own confusion and inertia in its struggles with the "King." That's the 17th-century Puritan mentality, and in the U.S. that's as ancient as it gets.

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