DP6912 Statute Law or Case Law?

Author(s): Luca Anderlini, Leonardo Felli, Alessandro Riboni
Publication Date: July 2008
Keyword(s): Case Law, Flexibility, Incomplete Laws, Precedents, Rigidity, Statute Law, Time-Inconsistency
JEL(s): C79, D74, D89, K40, L14
Programme Areas: Industrial Organization
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=6912

In a Case Law regime Courts have more flexibility than in a Statute Law regime. Since Statutes are inevitably incomplete, this confers an advantage to the Statute Law regime over the Case Law one. However, all Courts rule ex-post, after most economic decisions are already taken. Therefore, the advantage of flexibility for Case Law is unavoidably paired with the potential for time-inconsistency. Under Case Law, Courts may be tempted to behave myopically and neglect ex-ante welfare because, ex-post, this may afford extra gains from trade for the parties currently in Court. The temptation to behave myopically is traded off against the effect of a Court's ruling, as a precedent, on the rulings of future Courts. When Case Law matures this temptation prevails and Case Law Courts succumb to the time-inconsistency problem. Statute Law, on the other hand pairs the lack of flexibility with the ability to commit in advance to a given (forward looking) rule. This solves the time-inconsistency problem afflicting the Case Law Courts. We conclude that when the nature of the legal environment is sufficiently heterogeneous and/or changes sufficiently often, the Case Law regime is superior: flexibility is the prevailing concern. By the same token, when the legal environment is sufficiently homogeneous and/or does not change very often, the Statute Law regime dominates: the ability to overcome the time-inconsistency problem is the dominant consideration.