- Black letter law
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 contractor the technical definition of battery.
The phrase does not come from association with
Black's Law Dictionary, which was first published in 1891. A quick search of legal databases turns up "Naglee v. Ingersoll," 7 Pa. 185 (1847) where the phrase "black-letter law" is used. There is also a U.S. Supreme Courtcase, "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 . . ." ["Jackson ex dem Bradford v. Huntington", 30 U.S. 402, 432 (1831).]
Instead, it presumably refers to the practice of setting law books and citing legal precedents in
blacklettertype, 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 lawinto 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 Yorkprecedent deviates from the general principles.
common law, black letter legal doctrine is an informal term indicating the basic principles of lawgenerally accepted by the courts and/or embodied in the statutesof 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 legaltexts throughout history of specific statelaw. 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 doctrineis 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 lawthat are accepted by the majority of judgesin most provincesand territories. Sometimes this is referred to as " hornbook law" meaning treatiseor 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 rulewhich 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.
The phrase is nearly synonymous with the phrase "
horn book law". There are a number of very venerable legal sources that distill the common law on various subjects known as Restatement of the Law. The specific titles will be "The Restatement (First) of Contracts" or "The Restatement of Agency" etc. Each of these volumes is divided into sections that begin with a text in boldface that summarizes a basic rule on an aspect of the law of contracts, agency etc. This "restatement" is followed by commentary and examples that expand on the principle stated.
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,
tortand land law are typical black letter law subjects, whereas administrative law, for example, would be considered considerably less black letter.
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