The common law

England was proud of its individuality. Napoleon had imposed a codified system of law throughout his continental Empire, based on Roman law. In theory any citizen anywhere in his domain could consult a written source and see where he stood. Of course it was not so easy as that, and the legal profession continued to make a good living, interpreting the law to non‐lawyers. England never accepted Roman law.

The English preferred their own system of ‘common law’, which was, they felt, appropriate to the rugged English character. It relied on what judges had decided in previous cases on the same point of principle, which was not always easy to identify. The law relating to wills and land, in particular, became so obscure that a parallel system grew up, more nearly related to the idea of abstract justice: it was called ‘equity’. Again, it relied on decisions by earlier judges, and since one judge’s idea of justice might vary from another’s, not much clarification resulted. Cases in the courts of equity could drag on for many years. The costs of employing lawyers put such cases out of the reach of all but the richest.

The common law

Whitby Vandals Zoser