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In Law, what is Comity?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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Comity is a legal tradition of respecting laws and decisions from other jurisdictions, as long as they do not conflict with existing laws and policies. In international law, this is known as the comity of nations. This concept exists on many different levels; between nations, between states and provinces, and between even smaller units of government. It is an important precept in law.

The idea behind comity is that without mutual recognition of unproblematic judicial rulings, laws, and policy, a great deal of litigation and other problems could arise. For example, if a couple received a divorce decree in one nation and moved to another, the decree would need to be recognized for them to be considered divorced. Likewise, if a debtor had her or his debts discharged in court and then moved to another jurisdiction, under the tradition of comity, the debtor's debts would be recognized as discharged, and the creditors could not go after the debtor again.

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This concept began to arise in international law as nations started organizing their own distinct legal systems and trading and interacting more actively with one another. It was quickly realized that it was important to recognize and respect other jurisdictions because otherwise things could become chaotic in the legal field. While comity is not required, it is generally observed. When nations, states, and other units of government asserted sovereignty by not recognizing the laws and decisions of others, it created unstable and sometimes confusing legal situations, and there is a desire to avoid this.

The exception to this rule is when a judicial decision or law conflicts. For example, if someone has been convicted for defamation in a nation with strong restrictions on speech and that person relocates to a nation which protects freedom of speech, the conviction will not be recognized because it conflicts with policy.

In legal practice, comity also has another meaning. A lawyer who qualifies to practice in one region may be recognized by the bar in another, as long as the lawyer has met the requirements for legal practice. Sometimes known as bar reciprocity, this allows attorneys to relocate their practices or to travel to other jurisdictions for special cases. Reciprocity is not available for all lawyers in all regions; regional bar associations usually publish lists of other bar associations with which they have reciprocity so that their members know where they will be recognized and allowed to practice law.

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