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There are two meanings in regular use. First, 'common law' is used to mean the body of law in any legal system in which decisions of the judiciary become, over the years, new laws ('judge-made law'). In the USA, for example, the term is mostly used this way. In England, the term was originally used to mean the uniform set of laws that apply to England and Wales, derived from custom and practice by judges.
The English common law system -- like most similar systems -- is made more predictable by the principle of Stare decisis, or 'binding precedent'. New legislation is introduced into the system by the apparatus of state (see: Primary legislation), but this is general rather than particular. The decisions of judges clarify the law in specific cases (see:
Once a decision has been made by a court, that decision binds the outcomes of cases in lesser courts where the facts are sufficiently similar. Of course, judging whether the facts are sufficiently similar to apply a precedent can be a difficult task. Historically, English law has recognized a system of 'equity' alongside the common law (see: Equity).
Note that the term 'common law' is different from 'case law' (see:
in the sense that the former is a system, or a total body of legislation, while the latter is the written decisions of the courts.
Since the 19th Century the common law has become less significant, particular in criminal matters, as specific legislation has been developed in Statute.