Case Law, often used interchangeably with the term Common Law
, refers to the precedents and authority set by previous court rulings, judicial decisions and administrative legal findings or rulings. This is one of the main categories of law, with constitutional law, statutory law and regulatory law.
Although statutory laws, created by legislative bodies in concurrence with constitutional law, strive to provide overall direction, guidance and rules for society at large, it is impossible to deal with all situations, legal issues and questions by this manner alone. Our judicial bodies are tasked with interpreting law and in doing so, often set precedent where statutory, regulatory and even constitutional law is vague, unclear or silent. All of these precedents make up case law.
Stare decisis is the doctrine of precedent. It is the abbreviation of the full Latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta mvere", of which the literal translation is "to stand by decided matters and not to disturb settled matters". This means that a court will rule according to a previously established decision or finding. Although this does not always hold true, it is very difficult to obtain a ruling against precedent, and generally involves appellate courts. Additionally, legislatively created statutes may be enacted which overrule precedent. The decision cited for precedent must be from a court higher than the one hearing the current case. And in fact, case law is most often established by appellate courts.
Case law is generally very jurisdiction-specific. For example, a case in California would typically not be overseen and decided using precedent set in Maine. Instead, previous California rulings on the issue would be reviewed to determine interpretation of the law or issue, allowing a party to cite "binding precedent". If no such previous rulings exist, one may offer precedent from a different jurisdiction, but rather than binding, this would merely be "persuasive authority". There are also other factors in play which affect the binding authority of a specific case in common law, such as how old the decision is and how closely the material facts match in both cases.