What is an Act of Law?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell
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Woman posing

The phrase “act of law” originates in common law and can have one of two meanings, depending on context. An act of law can be a proposed or enacted law emanating from a country’s legislature or parliament. It can also be an act of the court, particularly with respect to property transactions. Under English common law, property can be lost or transferred in one of three ways: by act of man, act of law, or act of God. An act of law in this context is a court-ordered title transfer, requiring title to land or other goods to shift from one person or entity to another.

Common law countries include the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States. Under the common law system, prospective laws are drafted, debated, and enacted by elected officials before they are signed into active law by either the president or prime minister. All laws start out as bills, which become proposed acts once a majority of legislators can agree on the terms. Acts become law once signed.

The UK Family Law Act, the Australian Trade Practices Act, and the US Copyright Act are examples of national laws that are known as acts. Each can properly be called an act of law. Acts of law in this context are enforceable by any national-level court throughout the relevant country and can only be amended by legislative review.

An act of law as it relates to property title transfer is somewhat different. Common law courts generally have the ability to intervene in property disputes, including mortgage payment lapses, loan defaults, misappropriation, and owner death without a will. In doing so, courts typically survey all of the relevant facts, sometimes hear testimony, and come to a conclusion with respect to who owns the property. That conclusion is usually framed as a decree establishing the rightful owner and ordering transfer of title, if necessary. The resulting ownership is said to have been created by an “act of law,” which is a legal event.

Most property transfers are created by act of man, which includes the ordinary sale of property and purchase of property, as well as transfers by lease and inheritance. An act of God is typically understood as law to mean property loss or destruction on account of weather, storms, fire, or natural disaster. Events in both categories fall outside the scope of the strong arm of the law, which is what makes an act of law transfer different. With an act of law, the court is intervening in what is otherwise a private ownership matter and forcibly shifting title. Act of law title transfers only happen in highly-contested situations, usually involving lawsuits and trial.

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