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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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36 news items

Fri, 22 Aug 2014 03:45:00 -0700

Walker says the DPS has to notify the governor that his CHL will be suspended and give him the opportunity to appeal, but he says it's black letter law that a person who is under felony indictment cannot hold a concealed handgun permit, and appeals are ...
The Australian
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 07:03:42 -0700

In the wake of the GFC, legislators everywhere, epitomised by the sledgehammer Dodd-Frank reforms in the US, have preferred to paper over chasms in the existing financial architecture with yet more feckless black letter law rather than contend with the ...
Yahoo Finance (blog)
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 11:00:00 -0700

It's just black-letter law, something everybody learns in law school. If you're an attorney and you're representing the plaintiff, you can't sign an agreement and represent the defendant and still represent the plaintiff. You have a duty to be loyal to ...
Construction News
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 05:00:00 -0700

We shouldn't be legislating to send out signals or messages, we should be legislating to make good black letter law so the courts can know what the law is and apply it. Such clarity will benefit both employee and employer to ensure any liability for ...
Fri, 15 Aug 2014 23:31:36 -0700

“By black letter law, [the AT&T merger] would be easier to stop because of the horizontal competition issues,” said Matthew Woods, policy director at Free Press, which opposes both transactions. Still, he noted that the AT&T deal has triggered less ...


Sun, 10 Aug 2014 18:07:30 -0700

I am not a fan of the “gotcha” flavor that some aspects of this case have taken on, but the challengers' 2012 statements are relevant as a legal matter because what the government has to prove to win—as a matter of black-letter law under the Chevron ...
Tue, 12 Aug 2014 01:05:03 -0700

... cannot possibly be read. ... the challengers' 2012 statements are relevant as a legal matter because what the government has to prove to win-;as a matter of black-letter law under the Chevron doctrine -- is that the statute is ambiguous (Abbe R ...
North Wright County Today
Sat, 26 Jul 2014 07:48:45 -0700

My June 28 Minnesota Home Talk provided a brief overview of the pertinent considerations. 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).

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