Sources of English Law
Importance of history: an unwritten constitution
accumulation of history
Institutional foundations of legal system and early
sources of law.
Qualifying the power of the monarchy
Range of sources of the unwritten constitution.
The importance statute law.
Defining common law.
How binding precedents are established.
Multi-layered constitutional and legal system.
Comparison with Germany 
Bayeux tapestry depicting Norman conquest
Tower of London: castle building a consolidation of
Norman power
Doomsday book 1086: Law and administration -
inventory of the wealth of the Nation
Henry II
Origins of modern legal system
Henry II (1154-1189) established many features of
common law, jury trial, legal uniformity by judicial
New remedies available in the kings own Royal courts
(King/Queens bench division) and abolition of trial by
This common law is enforced throughout the land by
itinerant justices, professional administrators of the
law, all trained in one school.
Inns of Court established at this time: still responsible
for professional legal training of barristers.
The majority of judges are barristers with expertise in
legal reasoning gained from many years in practice
(rare for senior judges to be appointed below 45). 
King John youngest son of Henry II
Magna Carta
Magna Carta 1215
Magna Carta sealed by King John. Forced on the King by the
disaffected barons.
 This set the founding principles for parliament and constitution
but was never properly implemented.
It defined some rights, legal practices (fair trial) and 'good
lordship' - Set out what subjects could expect from their
monarch and superiors.
It placed real limitations on Royal Authority.
A committee of barons could overrule the King.
Due process of law is recognised from King downwards.
Granted rights to London and other towns.
Edward I taming Wales and Scotland
Henry VIII: self appointed head of protestant
Church of England 
Henry VIII and the English Reformation
• Failure to lawfully divorce Catherine of Aragon
• Following ex-communication by the Pope the Act of Supremacy
1534 made him supreme head of the Church of England;
• Nationalisation of the church was followed by the dissolution of
the monasteries, with ecclesiastical income redirected for the
benefit of the Crown.
• Religion became a central question for next two hundred years.
Act of Uniformity 1559 established common prayer book and
compulsory church attendance.
• Ecclesiastical courts operated alongside the King’s Bench
Common Law Courts and the Chancery Courts.
• Court of Star Chamber abolished in 1641 was developed as a
political weapon. 
Queen Elizabeth I 
Charles I: Executed 1649 following defeat in
civil war
Oliver Cromwell: Lord Protector 1649-1660
Charles II: restoration of Monarchy
James II: Roman Catholic King forced off the
The English Revolution and the Path to
By the beginning of 17th century Parliament important, especially
for taxation.
Charles I tried to raise taxation without Parliament e.g. Ship Money
case. This attempt to rule without summoning parliament failed and
led to national bankruptcy
Imposition of new prayer book in Scotland sparked rebellion. King
eventually had to summon Parliament for the funds to raise an
army. When Parliament refused King attempted to arrest 5
members during a sitting of the House of Commons.
Divine right of Kings called into question but he confronted
Parliament rather than being prepared to negotiate.
Charles I was executed in 1649.
Oliver Cromwell becomes Lord Protector.
English Bill of Rights 1689
• William III and Mary II offered the throne in 1689 but with strict
conditions attached:
• No army could be raised without parliamentary approval;
• Taxation required parliamentary approval;
• no special courts for political ends;
• freedom of petition guaranteed;
• free elections and annual parliaments;
• freedom of speech inside Parliament;
• protestant monarchy guaranteed, reinforced by Act of
Settlement 1701.
Parliamentary privilege
The result of this clash is that Parliament was given the
right to regulate its own proceedings.
The Speaker symbolically claims these privileges from
the monarch at each opening of Parliament.
MPs enjoy freedom of speech, freedom from arrest.
No court can challenge what Parliament does.
1660 restoration of monarchy under Charles II
James II once again attempted to undermine the
authority of Parliament with disastrous consequences.
What kind of English law?
• Writ system which was developed under Henry II adaptable to new
situations. It was based on on a bureaucratized system of returnable
writs. Writs framed the question to be put to a jury.
• Most law suits were heard in local common law courts.
• Judges of the King’s Bench applied rules, often rigidly, to resolve
disputes which formed the basis of precedent e.g. inheritance of land.
• Courts of Chancery based on fairness and justice developed from the
personal jurisdiction of the Lord Chancellor and operated alongside the
common law but was not bound by common law rules. Allegation of fact
eventually replaced writs.
• Development of trusts to protect the interest of minors and women
unable to hold property in their right.
• Injunctions as remedy increasingly available from mid sixteenth
Judicature Acts and the unification of law
• Distinct parallel systems of law: common law courts
and chancery/equity were combined into a single
system by a series of statutes from 1873.
• Chancery headed by the Lord Chancellor: placed
emphasis on justice and remedies such as injunction
and specific performance.
• Single writ based procedure became available and
the courts were able to offer the appropriate remedy.
• Both common law and equity were based on binding
The British Constitution is not contained in any one document nor
is there such a thing as higher order law, entrenchment.
The Constitution evolved over time and this evolution was first
about qualifying the absolute power of the King.
Magna Carta 1215 imposed limitations on Royal power.
Bill of Rights 1689 laid out basic rights but mainly recognised the
shift of power from the King to Parliament. No taxation, army etc.
without Parliament.
Great Reform Act 1832 important step in redistribution of seats and
the grant of the right to vote.
Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 imposed limitations on the powers
of the House of Lords.
Why does the UK have an uncodified
European Union Law
Bulmer v Bollinger [1974] - Lord Denning referred to
EU law as: ‘an incoming tide which cannot be held
European Communities Act 1972 – s.2 (1), s.2 (2),
s.2 (4) and s.3 (1)
Direct applicability of EU law in the UK from 1973.
Articles and regulations without further action,
directives need to be implemented domestically.
S.3(1) decisions of ECJ used to interpret e.g. Costa
ENEL case and EU supremacy doctrine.
R v S of S for Transport ex p Factortame
Ltd (No 2) [1991]
The case concerned fishing rights. The Merchant Shipping Act
1988 - s.14 had established a new register of UK vessels which
was only open to those whose who satisfied certain conditions,
e.g., that vessels were at least 75% UK owned.
Claimants who were Spanish argued that the Act infringed the
Treaty on grounds of discrimination on the basis of nationality.
House of Lords held that Community law had to be interpreted as
meaning that a national court must set aside any measure of
national law which precludes it from granting interim relief to protect
rights which had been established under Community law. See Lord
Bridge’s judgment.
The courts clearly accepted the supremacy of EU law and the
modification of the Diceyan approach. It spells the end of the
doctrine of implied repeal. 
How the Human Rights Act 1998
incorporates ECHR
* Positive duty placed on public bodies under Section 6 as it is
unlawful for them to act in a way which is incompatible with a
convention right e.g., central government, local government, the
police, immigration officers, prisons, courts and tribunals,
companies exercising public functions.
* Courts now required under section 2 to take into account ECHR
jurisprudence but not directly bound by it.
* Section 3 allows the court to interpret legislation so that it is given
effect in a way that is compatible Convention rights. This is a very
strong interpretative obligation which can have major impact.
* Section 4 permits court to issue declaration of incompatibility if not
possible to reconcile but parliamentary sovereignty unaffected so
that legislation remains in force. 
Sources of the Constitution
If we wanted to describe the UK constitution it would consist of a
range of different sources.
Statute law: some are of central significance, see below
Common law e.g. Entick v Carrington [1765]
European Union law since 1973 – Multi-layered constitution
European Convention on Human Rights since HRA 1998 in force
since October 2000.
Legal treatises e.g. works of Dicey/Bagehot etc.
Law and custom of Parliament, which regulates itself but is outside
the jurisdiction of the courts
Royal Prerogative powers of the monarch, now normally exercised
by ministers
Constitutional conventions of special importance to flesh in the
missing bits. 
What are constitutional statutes?
• Bill of Rights 1689 - limited powers of monarchy
• Act of Settlement 1701 - protestant succession
• Act of Union with Scotland 1707
• Reform Acts of 1832/1918 right to vote
• Parliament Acts 1911 - 1949 restricted powers of
House of Lords.
• Statute of Westminster 1931.
• European Communities Act 1972.
• Devolution legislation e.g. Scotland Act 1998
• Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated ECHR
• Constitutional Reform Act 2005 – Supreme Court
Thoburn v Sunderland City Council [2003]
Laws LJ : 'In the present state of its maturity the
common law has come to recognise that there exist
rights which should properly be classified as
constitutional or fundamental ... And from this a
further insight follows. We should recognise a
hierarchy of Acts of Parliament: as it were "ordinary"
statutes and "constitutional" statutes'.
HS2 Case [2014] importance of constitutional
statutes confirmed by the UK Supreme Court.
Constitutional conventions
Conventions according to Dicey are:
customary rules which determine how the discretionary powers
of the state were exercised:
 ‘…the “conventions of the constitution”
, consists of maxims or
practices which, though they regulate the ordinary conduct of
the Crown, of ministers, and of other persons under the
constitution, are not in strictness laws at all’
, in particular,
conventions unlike laws are not enforceable in the courts.
 Conventions often determine the conduct of the political actors
e.g. Crown, PM, ministers, civil servants, judges.
AV Dicey: Constitutional theorist
Dicey’s Constitution still recognisable
• Parliament has supreme authority to pass and repeal law which
cannot be directly challenged. No entrenched constitution
• But every citizen is nevertheless subjected to ‘the rule of law’
which ensures no punishment without law/control of
discretionary power and equality before the law.
• Judges in the ordinary independent courts are responsible for
protecting rights using the common law e.g. Entick v
Carrington and M v Home Office but the courts do not have
the power to override statute law only to interpret it. 
Characteristics of the Constitution
• The historical constitution which developed incrementally
through each of the events (and many more) mentioned here.
Many of these aspects were enacted in statutory form.
• Heavy reliance on constitutional conventions, these are
established rules of constitutional practice that determine
conduct of the Queen, PM, ministers, civil servants and
• Constitutional monarchy - the powers of the King or Queen have
been qualified since Magna Carta. Now the role of the Queen is
governed mainly by conventions e.g. Royal Assent to legislation
• Common law is a constitutional source. Where there is no other
authority judge made law sets precedents that taken together
form major parts of our law. Judges especially of the highest
courts play a crucial role interpreting and applying the law, but
there is no constitutional court. 
Defining ‘common law’
• Common law is a term used to categorise legal systems
which have the common law method of binding precedent
including UK, USA, Canada, Australia, India and other
former British colonies.
• The common law is the law made by judges in the courts
on the basis that higher courts and appellate courts set
precedents in finding reasons for deciding cases. This
ratio decidendi binds any court at a lower level on the
same point of law.
• Important aspects of especially civil law are still dependent
on judge made law e.g. contract and tort.
• Statute law prevails over common law e.g. tracts of law
may be codified by statute e.g. most criminal law is now
based on statute. 
How common law is made
‘….common law" refers to the way judges decide and have decided
the cases that come before them in areas of activity not governed
by Acts of Parliament' Waldron.
To understand case-law ‘... is to understand how it is that particular
decisions by particular judges concerning particular parties to
particular cases can be used in the construction of general rules
applying to the actions and transactions of persons at large.' N
Law reporting
Supreme Court: all cases
Court of Appeal, Civil and Criminal, Divisional Court of QBD:
all cases
High Court and Administrative Court (civil) all recorded some
cases reported
Generally not reported
County Court
Crown Court (higher criminal with jury)
Magistrates Court (criminal) 
How to understand law reports?
(1) the court which heard the case and when it was heard, this immediately
establishes the level in the hierarchy of courts;
(2) the main contested issues by providing a summary. At a glance it is possible to
discover if there is likely to be anything of relevance to the case in hand;
(3) the facts of the case before the court;
(4) the decision of the court i.e. what the court held. Remember that another feature
of the British adversarial system is that there has to be a winner and a loser. It may
be hard to maintain that a precedent survives when the decision of the court goes
clearly against it. This is not always true, as cases can be distinguished from each
other e.g. on the facts.
(5) all cases referred to in judgments i.e. what precedents were considered to
support the outcome. Also, all cases cited or referred to in skeleton argument by
(6) which court the appeal originated from and the previous outcome.
(7) in full the judgments of the members of the (appellate) court. The ratio decidendi
which is the binding passage will be contained in the judicial statements. 
Hierarchy of courts
UK Supreme Court formerly House of Lords
Highest domestic appellate court which binds all inferior courts in
the UK but not itself. Scope for judicial creativity to tackle manifest
inadequacies in the law. Must follow EU law.
Court of Appeal (civil division) binds lower courts and it binds itself
permitted to choose between its own conflicting decisions.
Per incuriam - if the earlier court failed to take everything into
account (or gets the law wrong) the decision will not be binding
High Court binds lower courts but not itself (most of its decisions
are unreported and therefore cannot form precedents).
Negligence: Donoghue v Stevenson
P becomes unwell after drinking from bottle of ginger beer
containing a partly decomposed snail (Schnecke).
The question for the court was whether there could be a claim in
tort rather than contract. This arose because it was not the man
who purchased the drink who suffered the injury. Should a
manufacturer be liable outside of the contractual liability that
existed? Should there be a general right to sue in such
George v Skivington (1869) important previous case:
'Unquestionably there was a duty towards the purchaser, and it
extends, in my judgment, to the person for whose use the vendor
knew the compound was purchased'.
Lord Atkin sees this as clear authority which is further supported in
a number of subsequent judgments. 
Dissenting versus majority judgments
Contrast dissenting interpretation of Lord Buckmaster where the
same case is viewed as an isolated authority providing little support
for this conclusion.
However, Lord Atkin held:
'You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which
you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your
neighbour. Who then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems
to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act
that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so
affected when directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are
called into question'. 
What principle has been established
Three elements used to establish liability in countless subsequent
negligence cases:
(1) it must be demonstrated by the plaintiff that a duty of care is
owed by the defendant i.e., he can reasonably foresee his acts will
affect the plaintiff;
(2) the defendant was in breach of that duty by not having taken
reasonable care;
(3) that this breach of duty has caused the plaintiff to suffer loss or
harm which is reasonably foreseeable by the defendant.
Statute law and common law
• Many areas of law are now codified in the sense that the main
principles are set out in statutes. For example, company law,
copyright law, aspects of contract law, criminal law.
• Drawing up the code will often include incorporating common
law decisions. Statute law always prevails over common law.
• But the judges still set precedents in the way they interpret
these statutes.
• EU law prevails over domestic law both statute and common
• Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates ECHR and gives judges
special powers of interpretation to make all domestic law
convention compatible. 
Comparison with Germany
• Both nations members of EU with community law a major
binding source of law.
• Both nations signatories of the European Convention of Human
Rights and thus required to conform to same human rights
norms as set out in convention and interpreted by Strasbourg
• Germany has codified federal constitution which also sets out
citizen rights and is based on a constitutional court which
determines constitutional questions and the validity of law.
• UK has no written constitution. Parliament remains sovereign.
Supreme Court can set precedents and determine devolution
issues but not able to invalidate primary legislation.
• German general law is codified while in the UK a substantial
part of the law is comprised of judge made decisions. 
Basic reading
• P Leyland ‘English Common Law: A Matter of
Interpretation’ 2014 Unpublished Paper.
• K Zweigert and H Kotz Introduction to Comparative
Law (Oxford: OUP, 1996) 181ff.
• P Leyland The Constitution of the United Kingdom: A
Contextual Analysis, (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2012).
• The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal
History entries on Common Law and Equity.
• P Harris An Introduction to Law (London:
Butterworths, 2002).