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In common law legal systems, black letter laws are the well-established technical legal rules that are no longer subject to reasonable dispute. Some examples are the "black-letter law" of contracts or the "black-letter law" of trademarks. Black-letter law can be contrasted with legal theory or 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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Main Justice
Tue, 05 Aug 2014 15:00:41 -0700

... PetroTiger Exec Argue 'Contrary to Black Letter Law' DOJ Lawyers Say. Counsel for Sigelman had moved to dismiss or sever a conspiracy count against the former CEO. This story is exclusively for members of the. JUST ANTI-CORRUPTION COMMUNITY.

Breitbart News

Breitbart News
Sun, 31 Aug 2014 15:52:30 -0700

The black letter law is quite clear that, as Section 493 of the Louisiana Election Code states, "[a]n action objecting to candidacy shall be commenced in a court of competent jurisdiction within seven days after the close of qualifications for ...

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Sat, 30 Aug 2014 12:18:45 -0700

At least once a year,I receive the following inquiry fom a new client: "I am trying to sell my home. A closing is scheduled at the title company next week, but the title commitment reflects an abstract of judgment lien filed in the county real property ...


Sun, 31 Aug 2014 10:37:30 -0700

Part of the issue, according to the plaintiffs, is that documents that were not written by attorneys or sent to attorneys are being withheld as privileged. “The black letter law in New York is clear that these communications are not privileged,” the ...
Canadian Lawyer Magazine
Mon, 01 Sep 2014 05:00:00 -0700

“We need to look at how we deal with people, how we can be better communicators, and a lot of that has nothing to do with the so-called black letter law we are traditionally comfortable with. We need to look at what the needs of the profession are and ...
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Fri, 29 Aug 2014 16:52:14 -0700

Applying the black letter law of attempt leads inexorably to the conclusion that no particular element of the completed criminal threat offense, including use of an objectively reasonable threat, is required to prove an attempt. Until today, a jury ...
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Fri, 29 Aug 2014 02:45:00 -0700

Disqualification is mandatory under the rules. The 18 world championship points foregone by Ricciardo may prove to be a penalty of marked severity come season's end. What's clear now though is that, despite Ricciardo's clear breach of the black letter ...

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