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In common law legal systems, the term black letter law is used to refer to the technical legal rules to be applied in a particular area, which are most often largely well-established and no longer subject to reasonable dispute. The term is not confined to one doctrinal area; one may speak of the "black-letter law" of contracts or the "black-letter law" of trademarks, for example. Should one wish to draw a distinction, one would typically contrast black-letter law and legal theory, or black-letter law and unsettled legal issues.

History and etymology[edit]

The phrase does not come from association with Black's Law Dictionary, which was first published in 1891. The phrase "black-letter law" was used in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Naglee v. Ingersoll, 7 Pa. 185 (1847), almost 50 years before the first publication of Black's. There is also a U.S. Supreme Court case that predates the dictionary, Jackson ex dem Bradford v. Huntington, that uses the phrase "black letter" in the same sense as black letter law: "It is seldom that a case in our time savors so much of the black letter, but the course of decisions in New York renders it unavailable . . ."[1]

Instead, it presumably refers to the practice of setting law books and citing legal precedents in blackletter type, a tradition that survived long after the switch to Roman and italic text for other printed works.

The phrase definitely refers to a distillation of the common law into general and accepted legal principles. One can see this in the quote above from the Supreme Court where the Court is noting that while the black letter law is clear, New York precedent deviates from the general principles.

In common law, the informal black letter legal doctrine includes the basic principles of law generally accepted by the courts and/or embodied in the statutes of a particular jurisdiction. The letter of the law is its actual implementation, thereby demonstrating that black letter laws are those statutes, rules, acts, laws, provisions, etc. that are or have been written down, codified, or indicated somewhere in legal texts throughout history of specific state law. This is often the case for many precedents that have been set in the common law. An example of such a state within the common law jurisdiction, and using the black letter legal doctrine is Canada. Being a monarchical state, with its roots invested in Colonial England, black letter law is the principles of law accepted by the majority of judges in most provinces and territories. Sometimes this is referred to as "hornbook law" meaning treatise or textbook, often relied upon as authoritative, competent, and generally accepted in the field of Canadian law. In lawyer lingo, hornbook law or black letter law is a fundamental and well-accepted legal principle that does not require any further explanation, since a hornbook is a primer of basics. Law is the rule which establish that a principle, provision, references, inference, observation, etc. may not require further explanation or clarification when the very nature of them shows that they are basic and elementary.

Similar phrases[edit]

The phrase is nearly synonymous with the phrase "hornbook law". There are a number of venerable legal sources that distill the common law on various subjects known as Restatement of the Law. The specific titles will be "The Restatement (First) of Contracts" or "The Restatement of Agency" etc. Each of these volumes is divided into sections that begin with a text in boldface that summarizes a basic rule on an aspect of the law of contracts, agency etc. This "restatement" is followed by commentary and examples that expand on the principle stated.


  1. ^ Jackson ex dem Bradford v. Huntington, 30 U.S. 402, 432 (1831).

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North Wright County Today
Sat, 26 Jul 2014 07:45:23 -0700

Here is a bit more of the black letter law on the subject. A landlord is not permitted to engage in self-help eviction. Berg v. Wiley, 264 N.W. 2d 145 (Minn 1978). The unlawful detainer is a special summary proceeding created by statute that provides ...


Fri, 25 Jul 2014 23:56:15 -0700

It is a "bedrock tax principle" and what lawyers call "black-letter law," generally accepted by lawyers and courts, the suit adds. Danon also alleges that "Vanguard knowingly and fraudulently failed to report and pay taxes on its $1.5 billion ...
Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette
Thu, 24 Jul 2014 05:12:43 -0700

It's black letter law that the plain meaning of statutory language is the best way to determine legislative intent. So, is the language error an ignorable "glitch"? Or is the language consistent with the legislation's unlawful effort to force states ...

Guardian Liberty Voice

Guardian Liberty Voice
Tue, 15 Jul 2014 20:31:39 -0700

Given the grounds on which the same sex marriage restrictions were overturned, the Supremes may decide that they do not want to hear the case because the grounds – due process and equal protection – are the kind of black letter law that no one, not ...


Al Jazeera America
Wed, 09 Jul 2014 09:53:04 -0700

“That is violating the black letter law of this country,” McCaskill said. Some schools, the report found, had seven times more cases of sexual violence than investigations. The survey included a national sample of 236 schools, as well as an additional ...
Fri, 04 Jul 2014 05:32:10 -0700

Tierney reminded us that the CJEU's ruling isn't the black letter law that citizens and data controllers must abide by: it's the implementation of the EU Data Protection Directive. Each EU member state has written its own data protection law but they ...
Corpus Christi Caller Times
Wed, 02 Jul 2014 01:15:57 -0700

They argued that, because the flock's numbers are still increasing, the loss of inflows to its critical habitat weren't significant enough to enforce the ESA's prohibition against harming individual cranes. This argument ignores the black letter law ...
Personal Liberty Digest
Wed, 02 Jul 2014 22:06:01 -0700

Of course, that's already black letter law known as “freedom of association.” The Hobby Lobby decision does not establish governmental oversight of private religious mores. No one is being denied access to anything. Hobby Lobby will continue to pay for ...

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