Environmental Law

Section 1: The Environment at Risk

Lesson 2: Common Law Remedies

Common-Law versus Statute Law

Statutes can be passed by both the federal and provincial levels of government. An example of a statute is Canada's Criminal Code. The Criminal Code is a federal statute; it's the law across Canada. By contrast, Alberta's School Act is provincial; it applies only in one province.

While most people today think of statutes as laws, the fact is that traditionally,  most of the law that has governed people in the English-speaking world, hasn't been created by bills passed by a government. Rather, most of our traditional law has been created bit by bit as judges have decided on court cases that have come before them. These decisions become precedents that judges in lower courts have to follow when similar cases have been brought before them. The huge body of legal decisions that have been created in this way is usually referred to as common law, though it's sometimes also called case law or judge-made law.

Common law and statute law exist side by side today. If a statute is passed, it takes priority over the common-law. But, if the statute is repealed, we instantly fall back upon the old common-law principles. Of course, legislators cannot anticipate everything when they write up a new statute; so sooner or later, it will be up to judges trying individual cases to decide just how the statute should be applied. This, in turn, creates a whole new body of case law based on the statute and thus, the cycle continues.