Conflict of laws principles is a set of rules for determining which law to apply in a case over which two or more contradictory laws seem to have jurisdiction.

Conflict of Laws Defined

Conflict of laws signifies the difference between the laws of two or more jurisdictions that are applicable to a dispute in question. The results of the case depend upon the selection of the law to resolve the dispute. The conflict can be between federal and state laws, among the state laws themselves, or between the laws of different countries.

The primary question that arises in the situation of conflicting laws is: which law should be used in resolving the case? Courts follow a certain process in order to determine the law it would apply in deciding a case. In legal parlance, this process is known as characterization or classification. Courts usually have two choices while determining which law to apply in the case of a conflict:

  • Lex fori: When the conflict in laws pertains to a procedural matter, courts mostly go by lex fori or the law of the forum.
  • Lex loci: When the conflict in laws pertains to a substantive matter, courts mostly go by lex loci or the law of the place where the cause of action arose.

Federal courts have different rules from those of state courts. That's because the jurisdiction of federal courts is limited by the constitution. Federal courts must follow a complex set of rules for determining the right law to apply in a case of conflicting laws.

Legal professionals and scholars in civil law refer to the conflict of laws as private international law. It is applied to legal disputes that have a foreign element in them.

The principles of conflict of laws are all the more urgent in the context of the United States since many states have their own laws that are different from the laws of other states. In 1938, the Supreme Court gave a ruling that all federal courts must play by the conflict of laws rules of the state in which they are hearing the case.

States are often restricted by some provisions in the U.S. Constitution in determining the manner they decide cases. For example, Article 4 (1) of the Constitution requires every state to give full credit to the judicial proceedings of other states. The Supreme Court has made it amply clear that based upon this constitutional provision, every state must treat the judgment given by another state as valid and must help in enforcing the judgment. The only exception to this rule is that a state need not enforce the penal law claims of another state.

Conflict of Laws Provisions

If you look at business contracts, you'll find that most of them contain a clause in the miscellaneous section, which either excludes the principles of conflict of laws or specify the conflict of laws principles of a certain state to govern the contract. This provision is usually made to interpret the agreement outside of the state where the cause of action has occurred.

For example, let's say you have made an agreement with a company in California. This may give rise to a cause of action in California. However, you want to apply the laws of Texas to your contract and hence clearly specify that the contract would be governed by the laws of Texas.

Now, most of the states have a law saying that the state where the cause of action occurs will have a jurisdiction over the dispute. Due to this, your contract may be governed by the laws of California despite your express intention to the contrary. To avoid such unintended hardship, contracts usually contain an exclusion clause to expressly nullify the provisions of conflict of laws.

Conflict of Laws Foundation

The conflict of laws is based upon the principle of choosing the most rational law to apply in a given case so as to give a fair result. It is known by different names, but none of them are accurate.

In a federal system like the United States where the conflicts are mainly between different state laws, the term “conflict of laws” is more popular since these rules are rarely applied to international issues. However, it's still a general term that also applies to international disputes. Many criticize the term as being misleading since the object of these rules is to resolve the conflicts between different laws rather than the conflict itself.

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