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Matter of Law

That which is determined or ascertained through the use of statutes, rules, court decisions, and interpretations of legal principles.

In legal actions the term matter of law is used to define a particular area that is the responsibility of the court. Matter of law is distinguished from matter of fact. All questions concerning the determination of fact are for the jury, though a judge may determine the facts if a jury trial is waived or is not permitted under the law.

The designation of matters of law to the judge and matters of fact to the jury did not develop, however, until the late eighteenth century. Until that time a jury could exercise its judgment over matters of fact and law. Jury instructions, which in modern law are technical and specific about which law to apply, were informal and general. A jury was free to accept the instructions, modify them, or ignore them completely.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, courts had acquired authority over matters of law and confined juries to matters of fact. Commercial lawyers were particularly influential in bringing about this change, as greater judicial control over matters of law helped produce a stable legal system in which business could prosper.

Today courts rule on all matters of law, including pretrial motions, trial objections to the introduction of particular evidence or testimony, proposed jury instructions, and posttrial motions. Their decisions are based on statutes, RULES OF EVIDENCE and procedure, and the body of relevant case law.

When the facts in a civil action are not in dispute, one or both of the parties may request a court to make a SUMMARY JUDGMENT. Summary judgment is purely a matter of law; the court accepts the relevant facts as presented by the party opposing summary judgment and renders a decision based on the applicable legal principles.

A matter of law can be the basis for an appeal, but generally a matter of fact cannot. Though an appeals court can reverse a decision because of a mistaken matter of law, it will not reverse if the mistake did not affect the verdict. This "harmless error" rule developed, in part, from the recognition that during a trial the court often must make hundreds of decisions based on matters of law.

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