Black letter law

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The black letter law refers to the basic standard elements for a particular field of law, which are generally known and free from doubt or dispute. It may, for example, be the standard elements for a contract or the technical definition of battery.

The term "black-letter law" is also used commonly in the American legal system to mean well-established case law.

At least in English law, black letter law is a term used to describe those areas of law characterized by technical rules, rather than those areas of law characterized by having a more conceptual basis. Contract, tort and land law are typical black letter law subjects, whereas administrative law, for example, would be considered considerably less black letter.

History and etymology

The phrase does not come from association with Black's Law Dictionary, which was first published in 1891. The phrase "black-letter law" was used in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Naglee v. Ingersoll, 7 Pa. 185 (1847), almost 50 years before the first publication of Black's. There is also a U.S. Supreme Court case that predates the dictionary, Jackson ex dem Bradford v. Huntington, that uses the phrase "black letter" in the same sense as black letter law: "It is seldom that a case in our time savors so much of the black letter, but the course of decisions in New York renders it unavailable . . ."[1]

Instead, it presumably refers to the practice of setting law books and citing legal precedents in blackletter type, a tradition that survived long after the switch to roman and italic text for other printed works.

The phrase definitely refers to a distillation of the common law into general and accepted legal principles. You can see this in the quote above from the Supreme Court where the Court is noting that while the black letter law is clear, New York precedent deviates from the general principles.

In common law, black letter legal doctrine is an informal term indicating the basic principles of law generally accepted by the courts and/or embodied in the statutes of a particular jurisdiction. Letter of the law is its actual implementation, thereby demonstrating that black letter law are those statutes, rules, acts, laws, provisions, etc. that are or have been written down, codified, or indicated somewhere in legal texts throughout history of specific state law. This is often the case for many precedents that have been set in the common law. An example of such a state within the common law jurisdiction, and using the black letter legal doctrine is Canada. Being a monarchical state, with its roots invested in Colonial England, black letter law is that which is a term used to describe basic principles of law that are accepted by the majority of judges in most provinces and territories. Sometimes this is referred to as "hornbook law" meaning treatise or textbook, often relied upon as authoritative, competent, and generally accepted in the field of Canadian law. In lawyer lingo, hornbook law or black letter law is a fundamental and well-accepted legal principle that does not require any further explanation, since a hornbook is a primer of basics. Law is the rule which establish that a principle, provision, references, inference, observation, etc. may not require further explanation or clarification when the very nature of them shows that they are basic and elementary.

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