Insurance law is the practice of law surrounding insurance, including insurance policies and claims. It can be broadly broken into three categories – regulation of the business of insurance; regulation of the content of insurance policies, especially with regard to consumer policies; and regulation of claim handling.
Common law jurisdictions in former members of the British empire, including the United States, Canada, India, South Africa, and Australia ultimately originate with the law of England and Wales. What distinguishes common law jurisdictions from their civil law counterparts is the concept of judge-made law and the principle of stare decisis – the idea, at its simplest, that courts are bound by the previous decisions of courts of the same or higher status. In the insurance law context, this meant that the decisions of early commercial judges such as Mansfield, Lord Eldon and Buller bound, or, outside England and Wales, were at the least highly persuasive to, their successors considering similar questions of law.
At common law, the defining concept of a contract of commercial insurance is of a transfer of risk freely negotiated between counterparties of similar bargaining power, equally deserving (or not) of the courts’ protection. The underwriter has the advantage, by dint of drafting the policy terms, of delineating the precise boundaries of cover. The prospective insured has the equal and opposite advantage of knowing the precise risk proposed to be insured in better detail than the underwriter can ever achieve. Central to English commercial insurance decisions, therefore, are the linked principles that the underwriter is bound to the terms of his policy; and that the risk is as it has been described to him, and that nothing material to his decision to insure it has been concealed or misrepresented to him.
In civil law countries insurance has typically been more closely linked to the protection of the vulnerable, rather than as a device to encourage entrepreneurialism by the spreading of risk. Civil law jurisdictions – in very general terms – tend to regulate the content of the insurance agreement more closely, and more in the favour of the insured, than in common law jurisdictions, where the insurer is rather better protected from the possibility that the risk for which it has accepted a premium may be greater than that for which it had bargained. As a result, most legal systems worldwide apply common-law principles to the adjudication of commercial insurance disputes, whereby it is accepted that the insurer and the insured are more-or-less equal partners in the division of the economic burden of risk.