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Black Letter Law (Legal Definition: All You Need To Know)

What is Black Letter Law?

How do you legally define it?

What are the essential elements you should know!

Keep reading as we have gathered exactly the information that you need!

Let’s dig into our legal dictionary and knowledge!

Are you ready?

Let’s get started!

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.

Hornbook Law

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.

Black-Letter Law

  • In common law jurisdictions, black letter laws refer to well-established legal rules that are not subject to any dispute or challenge
  • Black-letter law can be contrasted with legal theories that are potentially subject to dispute or deal with unsettled legal issues 
  • The US Supreme Court used the phrase “black letter law” in 1831 to refer to a legal notion that was well-established 
  • The Blackletter law concept came from the practice of setting law books and writing legal precedents in a Gothic type blackletter font (eventually, the legal profession started using Roman letters as of the mid-nineteenth century)
Black market 
Case law 
Common law 
Contract law
Hornbook law 
Land law 
Legal rules
Tort law
Trite law
Absolute law 
Judicial review 
Law school
Legal treatise 
Locus standi
Personal jurisdiction 
Res judicata 
Scrivener’s error 
Statutory right

Editorial Staffhttps://lawyer.zone
Hello Nation! I'm a lawyer and passionate about law. I've practiced law in a boutique law firm, worked in a multi-national organization and as in-house counsel. I've been around the block! On this blog, I provide you with golden nuggets of information about lawyers, attorneys, the law and legal theories. Enjoy!


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