A Brief Guide to Books on the Common Law

There are hundreds of books on the common law- and it is hard to know where to start. This short note on reading deliberately excludes any discussion of scholarly texts, in the interests of describing some of the more introductory readings. The books discussed below tend to be books used on first year courses in universities, and thus provide something of a starting point. The thing to bear in mind is that this list reflects our personal tastes. We should also declare our own interests: we wrote The Politics of the Common Law, and, of course, think that it is the best introductory text! We will try to be a little more objective below.

The key point to bear in mind is to dip into the books, and work out which one is closest to your personal tastes. You might want to prepare for a law degree, or you might just be interested in the law; you might want a more political or philosophical approach to law or you may just be interested in the ‘basics’. One of the peculiar aspects about the study of law is that you might want, first of all, to ‘get’ the basics- after mastering (or indeed mistressing) the basics, you may then find you want to go deeper: welcome to the study of law.

One last thing: law changes rapidly; we also appear to be entering a process of turbulence and change in British politics. There is no substitute for being up to date with recent developments. Read a good newspaper (never The Sun; The Daily Mail is also suspect).

Geoffrey Rivlin, Understanding the Law (Oxford: OUP 2012), 6th Edition.

A good, readable account of the English (and Welsh) legal system covering the fundamental institutions. Some discussion of the history of common law institutions, but primarily a description of the contemporary reality of law in the UK.

Martin Partington, Introduction to the English Legal System (Oxford: OUP, 2012), 7th Edition.

A slightly different thematic ordering to Rivlin, but a good, basic introduction to the institutions of the legal system, with a good, critical final chapter: “Is the English legal system fit for purpose” Also contains a useful first chapter, Law, Society and Authority  which engages with a broader framing of law that is perhaps not explicit in RIvlin’s book.

Gary Slapper and David Kelly, The English Legal System (London: Routledge, 2013), 14th Edition

An encyclopaedic text: whilst replete with detail, some find the text not as easy to read as Partington and Rivlin. Covers the same areas as the books mentioned above- and also has an opening chapter on the Rule of Law and Human Rights which is worth reading. Not too engaged with the history of the common law- and- like Rivlin and Partington- focused on the present institutions of the legal system.

Adam Gearey, Wayne Morrison and Rob Jago, The Politics of the Common law (London: Routledge, 2013), 2nd Edition.

We wrote this book after teaching common law for a number of years, and finding that we wanted a text that reflected our own concerns. We wanted to capture the historical (post colonial) reality of the common law, and describe the law in its cultural and political context. We cover all of the concerns that you would find in the other books, but wanted to present them in a less descriptive and more evaluative way. Thus, we feel that study of the common law has to being with an engagement with the values of law; a question, for us, bound up with human rights. Admittedly not to everyone’s tastes, but, from talking to readers of the book, some people find this approach much more exciting than the rather anodyne attempts to merely describe legal institutions.


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