Civil Litigation: The Conflicts of Law Explained

  • James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ. Legal Editor

  • Steve Longo

    Executive Editor

    In Brief:

  • Conflicts of law arise when a legal case potentially be held in multiple jurisdictions.

  • These legal conflicts can occur at various levels of government, including between two countries. 

  • Learn more about conflicts of law and how they're resolved below!

Part of the genius of the U.S. legal system is its multi-tiered approach and framework that allows for the efficient resolution of legal disputes at the state and local level, freeing the U.S. Supreme Court from having to micromanage all jurisdictions and instead focus on interpreting the U.S. Constitution. 

However, it also inevitably sets the stage for competing laws and jurisdictions, something known as the conflicts of law

What exactly are the conflicts of law? How are interstate and local legal issues resolved effectively? We examine all that and more below!

What are Conflicts of Law?

In civil litigation, conflicts of law are the differences between the two or more jurisdictions connected to a legal case to the extent that the outcome of the case depends on which jurisdiction’s laws will resolve the case. Conflicts of law can occur with Federal law, state law, local law, and even legal conflicts with other countries around the world. 

Some kinds of these legal conflicts are resolved easily, as courts apply their own rules of procedures in these instances to solve them efficiently. In addition, state laws defer to Federal laws, given that the U.S. Constitution declares it to be the “supreme law of the land” in the United States. Federal courts, in turn, follow state law on any substantive issues. For example, a Federal court involved in a tort law case in New York would apply the state’s own laws much as it would if it were the state’s own supreme court. 

Courts determining how to resolve a legal conflict typically have two choices: A court can apply the law of the forum, known as lex fori, which is generally the result when the question of which law to apply to a legal case iis procedural, or the court can decide to apply the law of the site of the or where the litigation originated from, called lex loci, which is usually employed when the legal matter at hand is determined to be substantive. 

A hammer and gavel used in a tort law case

New Approaches to Resolving Conflicts of Law

In the middle of the 20th century, resolving legal conflicts was a very rigid and traditional process with little room for interpretation. However, in more recent years, a number of methods have emerged for resolving legal issues  between jurisdictions that have challenged these more traditional principles that had existed for generations prior. 

In addition to using the lex fori and lex loci principles, another innovative approach used to resolve legal disputes in the U.S. is known as the significant contacts test, which states that jurisdiction should be deferred to the state with the most significant contacts to the litigation overall. 

Similarly, another method called the seat of relationship test is used, which employs the laws of the state in which the relationship between the litigious parties is most significant. For example, if two people from California meet and develop a relationship in Oregon but find themselves in a legal dispute in Washington, Oregon state law would apply since it’s where the two parties developed their relationship. 

The balance of interest test, meanwhile, seeks to divide cases into true conflicts, false conflicts, and unprovided-for cases and subsequently apply the law of the jurisdiction best suited for the type of conflict at hand. Another method used is the comparative impairment test, which asks which state or city’s policies would suffer more if their law wasn’t applied to the legal case in question. 

All of these methods are used to resolve conflicts of law in the United States and continue to be studied by legal scholars and professionals today. 

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