What is Black Letter Law?
How do you legally define it?
What are the essential elements you should know!
In this article, we will break down the legal definition of Black Letter Law so you know all there is to know about it!
Keep reading as we have gathered exactly the information that you need!
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Table of Contents
What Is Black Letter Law
“Black Letter Law” refers to legal principles and doctrines that are widely known and accepted.
When the majority of judges and legal scholars agree on a certain legal notion, principle, definition, or standard element, we’ll refer to that principle as black letter law.
The same applies to widely accepted and established case laws.
Case laws that refer to undisputed and key components of the law, we’ll refer to those case law concepts as black letter law.
When a legal concept is not definitively settled, not widely accepted, or subject to reasonable dispute, we’ll generally refer to that as a “legal theory”.
As such, “black letter law” can be contrasted with a “legal theory” where one is widely accepted and undisputed whereas the other is subject to challenge.
Black Letter Law Definition
According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, black letter law is defined as follows:
Basic standard rules that are generally known and free from doubt.
As you can see from this definition, we refer to a rule or legal concept when it is “generally known” and “free from doubt”.
Black-letter law is generally related to the colloquial term “letter-of-the-law” referring to courts taking a literal approach in interpreting the law.
On the other hand, “spirit-of-the-law” refers to a broader interpretation in light of the current policies and contextual considerations.
Black Letter Law History
In the United States, the phrase “black letter” was first used by the U.S. Supreme Court in Jackson ex dem back in 1831.
The phrase was then cited in other cases such as the Jackson ex dem. Bradstreet v. Huntington and Naglee v. Ingersoll (Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1847).
The reason why the court used the phrase “black law” was to refer to the practice of setting law books and citing legal precedents that were in blackletter type.
“Blackletter” was historically text printed in old law books in a Gothic type font.
The notion was used to refer to generally known and accepted legal principles in the common law.
Black Letter Law Example
Let’s look at an example of black letter law to better illustrate the concept.
One legal principle that is very well established and is undisputed is that a judgment must have finality before it can be appealed.
As a result, we can state that it is black letter law that a party to a civil lawsuit can only appeal the judgment on the merits of the case when it definitively decides on a legal issue.
Another black letter law is the requirement “consideration” in contracts.
It is a well-established rule in common law that for a contract to be formed, you need to have consideration.
Black letter law is also synonymous with “hornbook law”.
In US legal education, the term hornbook refers to a one-volume legal treatise.
Hornbook law is a phrase used to refer to legal principles that are generally listed in legal education textbooks.
However, the phrase blackletter law is better viewed than the term hornbook law.
Black Letter Rule Takeaways
So what is the legal definition of Black Letter Law?
Let’s look at a summary of our findings.
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