Legal systems of the world.[1] Civil law-based systems are in blue.

Civil law is a legal system originating in Italy and France that has been adopted in large parts of the world. Modern civil law stems mainly from the Napoleonic Code of the early 19th century, and it is a continuation of ancient Roman law. Its core principles are codified into a referable system, which serves as the primary source of law.

The civil law system is often contrasted with the common law system, which originated in medieval England. Whereas the civil law takes the form of legal codes, the common law comes from uncodified case law that arises as a result of judicial decisions, recognising prior court decisions as legally binding precedent.[2]

Historically, a civil law is the group of legal ideas and systems ultimately derived from the Corpus Juris Civilis, but heavily overlain by Napoleonic, Germanic, canonical, feudal, and local practices,[3] as well as doctrinal strains such as natural law, codification, and legal positivism. The Napoleonic Code is the most widespread system of law in the world, in force in various forms in about 120 countries.[4][unreliable source?]

Conceptually, civil law proceeds from abstractions, formulates general principles, and distinguishes substantive rules from procedural rules.[5] It holds case law secondary and subordinate to statutory law. Civil law is often paired with the inquisitorial system, but the terms are not synonymous. There are key differences between a statute and a code.[6] The most pronounced features of civil systems are their legal codes, with concise and broadly applicable texts that typically avoid factually specific scenarios.[7][6] The short articles in a civil law code deal in generalities and stand in contrast with ordinary statutes, which are often very long and very detailed.[6]


The civil law system is the most widespread system of law in the world, in force in various forms in about 150 countries.[8]

Origin and features

Civil law is sometimes referred to as neo-Roman law, Romano-Germanic law or Continental law. The expression "civil law" is a translation of Latin jus civile, or "citizens' law", which was the late imperial term for its legal system, as opposed to the laws governing conquered peoples (jus gentium); hence, the Justinian Code's title Corpus Juris Civilis. Civil law practitioners, however, traditionally refer to their system in a broad sense as jus commune. It draws heavily from Roman law, arguably the most intricate known legal system before the modern era.[citation needed]

In civil law legal systems where codes exist, the primary source of law is the law code, a systematic collection of interrelated articles,[9] arranged by subject matter in some pre-specified order.[10] Codes explain the principles of law, rights and entitlements, and how basic legal mechanisms work. The purpose of codification is to provide all citizens with manners and written collection of the laws which apply to them and which judges must follow. Law codes are laws enacted by a legislature, even if they are in general much longer than other laws. Rather than a compendium of statutes or catalog of case law, the code sets out general principles as rules of law.[9]

While the typical French-speaking supreme court decision is short, concise and devoid of explanation or justification, in Germanic Europe, the supreme courts can and do tend to write more verbose opinions, supported by legal reasoning.[11] A line of similar case decisions, while not precedent per se, constitute jurisprudence constante.[11] While civil law jurisdictions place little reliance on court decisions, they tend to generate a phenomenal number of reported legal opinions.[11] However, this tends to be uncontrolled, since there is no statutory requirement that any case be reported or published in a law report, except for the councils of state and constitutional courts.[11] Except for the highest courts, all publication of legal opinions is unofficial or commercial.[12]


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Civil law systems can be divided into:

Prominent civil codes

A prominent example of a civil law code is the Napoleonic Code (1804), named after French emperor Napoleon. The Napoleonic code comprises three components:

Another prominent civil code is the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or BGB), which went into effect in the German empire in 1900.[13] The German Civil Code is highly influential, inspiring the civil codes in countries such as Japan, South Korea and Switzerland (1907). It is divided into five parts:[13]

  1. The General Part, covering definitions and concepts, such as personal rights and legal personality.
  2. Obligations, including concepts of debt, sale and contract;
  3. Things (property law), including immovable and movable property;
  4. Domestic relations (family law); and
  5. Succession (estate law).


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Civil law takes as its major inspiration classical Roman law (c. AD 1–250), and in particular Justinian law (6th century AD), and further expanded and developed in the late Middle Ages under the influence of canon law.[14] The Justinian Code's doctrines provided a sophisticated model for contracts, rules of procedure, family law, wills, and a strong monarchical constitutional system.[15] Roman law was received differently in different countries. In some it went into force wholesale by legislative act, i.e., it became positive law, whereas in others it was diffused into society by increasingly influential legal experts and scholars.

Roman law continued without interruption in the Eastern Roman Empire until its final fall in the 15th century. However, given the empire's influence on the continent in Late Antiquity and then multiple incursions and occupations by Western European powers in the late medieval period, its laws became widely implemented in the West. It was first received in the Holy Roman Empire partly because it was considered imperial law, and it spread in Europe mainly because its students were the only trained lawyers. It became the basis of Scots law, though partly rivaled by received feudal Norman law. In England, it was taught academically at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but underlay only probate and matrimonial law insofar as both were inherited from canon law, and maritime law, adapted from lex mercatoria through the Bordeaux trade.

Consequently, neither of the two waves of Roman influence completely dominated in Europe. Roman law was ultimately a secondary source that was applied only when local customs and laws were found lacking on a certain subject. However, after a time, even local law came to be interpreted and evaluated primarily on the basis of Roman law, since it was a common European legal tradition of sorts, and thereby in turn influenced the main source of law. Eventually, the work of civilian glossators and commentators led to the development of a common body of law and writing about law, a common legal language, and a common method of teaching and scholarship, all termed the jus commune, or law common to Europe, which consolidated canon law and Roman law, and to some extent, feudal law.


See also: Codification (law)

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An important common characteristic of civil law, aside from its origins in Roman law, is the comprehensive codification of received Roman law, i.e., its inclusion in civil codes. The earliest codification known is the Code of Hammurabi, written in ancient Babylon during the 18th century BC. However, this, and many of the codes that followed, were mainly lists of civil and criminal wrongs and their punishments. The codification typical of modern civilian systems did not first appear until the Justinian Code.

Germanic codes appeared over the 6th and 7th centuries to clearly delineate the law in force for Germanic privileged classes versus their Roman subjects and regulate those laws according to folk-right. Under feudal law, a number of private custumals were compiled, first under the Norman empire (Très ancien coutumier, 1200–1245), then elsewhere, to record the manorial—and later regional—customs, court decisions, and the legal principles underpinning them. Custumals were commissioned by lords who presided as lay judges over manorial courts in order to inform themselves about the court process.

The use of custumals from influential towns soon became commonplace over large areas. In keeping with this, certain monarchs consolidated their kingdoms by attempting to compile custumals that would serve as the law of the land for their realms, as when Charles VII of France in 1454 commissioned an official custumal of Crown law. Two prominent examples include the Coutume de Paris (written 1510; revised 1580), which served as the basis for the Napoleonic Code, and the Sachsenspiegel (c. 1220) of the bishoprics of Magdeburg and Halberstadt which was used in northern Germany, Poland, and the Low Countries.

The concept of codification was further developed during the 17th and 18th centuries AD, as an expression of both natural law and the ideas of the Enlightenment. The political ideals of that era was expressed by the concepts of democracy, protection of property and the rule of law. Those ideals required certainty of law; recorded, uniform law. So, the mix of Roman law and customary and local law gave way to law codification. Also, the notion of a nation-state implied recorded law that would be applicable to that state. There was also a reaction to law codification. The proponents of codification regarded it as conducive to certainty, unity and systematic recording of the law; whereas its opponents claimed that codification would result in the ossification of the law.

In the end, despite whatever resistance to codification, the codification of Continental European private laws moved forward. Codifications were completed by Denmark (1687), Sweden (1734), Prussia (1794), France (1804), and Austria (1811). The French codes were imported into areas conquered by Napoleon and later adopted with modifications in Poland (Duchy of Warsaw/Congress Poland; Kodeks cywilny 1806/1825), Louisiana (1807), Canton of Vaud (Switzerland; 1819), the Netherlands (1838), Serbia (1844), Italy and Romania (1865), Portugal (1867) and Spain (1888). Germany (1900), and Switzerland (1912) adopted their own codifications. These codifications were in turn imported into colonies at one time or another by most of these countries. The Swiss version was adopted in Brazil (1916) and Turkey (1926).

Louisiana is the only U.S. state whose private civil law is based heavily on the French and Spanish codes, as opposed to English common law.[16] In Louisiana, private law was codified into the Louisiana Civil Code. Current Louisiana law has converged considerably with American law, especially in its public law, judicial system, and adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code (except for Article 2) and certain legal devices of American common law.[17] In fact, any innovation, whether private or public, has been decidedly common law in origin.[citation needed]

In theory, codes conceptualized in the civil law system should go beyond the compilation of discrete statutes, and instead state the law in a coherent, and comprehensive piece of legislation, sometimes introducing major reforms or starting anew.[6] In this regard, civil law codes are more similar to the Restatements of the Law, the Uniform Commercial Code (which drew from European inspirations), and the Model Penal Code in the United States. In the United States, U.S. states began codification with New York's 1850 Field Code (laying down civil procedure rules and inspired by European and Louisiana codes).[18] Other examples include California's codes (1872), and the federal revised statutes (1874) and the current United States Code (1926), which are closer to compilations of statute than to systematic expositions of law akin to civil law codes.

For the legal system of Japan, beginning in the Meiji Era, European legal systems—especially the civil law of Germany and France—were the primary models for emulation. In China, the German Civil Code was introduced in the later years of the Qing dynasty, emulating Japan. In addition, it formed the basis of the law of the Republic of China, which remains in force in Taiwan. Furthermore, Taiwan[19] and Korea, former Japanese colonies, have been strongly influenced by the Japanese legal system.

Comparison with other legal systems

Civil law is primarily contrasted with the English common law that influenced the legal traditions of the English-speaking countries.

The primary contrast between the two systems is the role of written decisions and precedent as a source of law (one of the defining features of common law legal systems).[20] While Common law systems place great weight on precedent,[21] civil law judges tend to give less weight to judicial precedent.[22] For example, the Napoleonic Code expressly forbade French judges to pronounce general principles of law.[23] There is no doctrine of stare decisis in the French civil law tradition. There are regular, good quality law reports in France, but it is not a consistent practice in many of the existing civil law jurisdictions. In French-speaking colonial Africa there were no law reports and what little we know of those historical cases comes from publication in journals.[24] Civil law codes must be changed constantly because the precedent of courts is not binding and because courts lack authority to act if there is no statute.[25]

In some civil law jurisdictions the judiciary does not have the authority to invalidate legislative provisions.[26] For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union the Armenian Parliament, with substantial support from USAID, adopted new legal codes. Some of the codes introduced problems which the judiciary was not empowered to adjudicate under the established principles of the common law of contracts - they could only apply the code as written.[27][28]

Codification, however, is by no means a defining characteristic of a civil law system. For example, the statutes that govern the civil law systems of Sweden and other Nordic countries and the Roman-Dutch countries are not grouped into larger, expansive codes like those in French and German law.[29]

In actual practice, an increasing degree of precedent is creeping into civil law jurisprudence, and is generally seen in many nations' highest courts.[11]

Some authors consider civil law the foundation for socialist law used in communist countries, which in this view would basically be civil law with the addition of Marxist-Leninist ideals. Even if this is so, civil law was generally the legal system in place before the rise of socialist law, and some Eastern European countries reverted to the pre-socialist civil law following the fall of socialism, while others continued using a socialist legal systems.[citation needed]


The term civil law comes from English legal scholarship and is used in English-speaking countries to lump together all legal systems of the jus commune tradition. However, legal comparativists and economists promoting the legal origins theory [who?] prefer to subdivide civil law jurisdictions into distinct groups:

However, some of these legal systems are often and more correctly said to be of hybrid nature:

Napoleonic to Germanistic influence: The Italian civil code of 1942 replaced the original one of 1865, introducing German elements as a result of its World War II Axis alliance.[33] This approach has been imitated by other countries, including Portugal (1966), the Netherlands (1992), Brazil (2002) and Argentina (2014). Most of them have innovations introduced by the Italian legislation, including the unification of the civil and commercial codes.[34]

Germanistic to Napoleonic influence: The Swiss civil code is considered mainly influenced by the German civil code and partly influenced by the French civil code. The civil code of the Republic of Turkey is a slightly modified version of the Swiss code, adopted in 1926 during Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's presidency as part of the government's progressive reforms and secularization.

Some systems of civil law do not fit neatly into this typology, however. Polish law developed as a mixture of French and German civil law in the 19th century. After the reunification of Poland in 1918, five legal systems (French Napoleonic Code from the Duchy of Warsaw, German BGB from Western Poland, Austrian ABGB from Southern Poland, Russian law from Eastern Poland, and Hungarian law from Spisz and Orawa) were merged into one. Similarly, Dutch law, while originally codified in the Napoleonic tradition, has been heavily altered under influence from the Dutch native tradition of Roman-Dutch law (still in effect in its former colonies). Scotland's civil law tradition borrowed heavily from Roman-Dutch law. Swiss law is categorized as Germanistic, but it has been heavily influenced by the Napoleonic tradition, with some indigenous elements added in as well.

Quebec law, whose private law is also of French civil origin, has developed along the same lines, adapting in the same way as Louisiana to the public law and judicial system of Canadian common law. By contrast, Quebec private law has innovated mainly from civil sources. To a lesser extent, other states formerly part of the Spanish Empire, such as Texas and California, have also retained aspects of Spanish civil law into their legal system, for example community property. The legal system of Puerto Rico exhibits similarities to that of Louisiana: a civil code whose interpretations rely on both the civil and common law systems. Because Puerto Rico's Civil Code is based on the Spanish Civil Code of 1889, available jurisprudence has tended to rely on common law innovations due to the code's age and in many cases, obsolete nature.

Several Islamic countries have civil law systems that contain elements of Islamic law.[35] As an example, the Egyptian Civil Code of 1810 that developed in the early 19th century—which remains in force in Egypt is the basis for the civil law in many countries of the Arab world where the civil law is used— is based on the Napoleonic Code, but its primary author Abd El-Razzak El-Sanhuri attempted to integrate principles and features of Islamic law in deference to the unique circumstances of Egyptian society.

Japanese Civil Code is considered a mixture drawing roughly 60% from the German civil code, roughly 30% from the French civil code, 8% from Japanese customary law, and 2% from English law.[36] Regarding the latter, the code borrows the doctrine of ultra vires and the precedent of Hadley v Baxendale from English common law system.

Countries with civil law systems

Some countries where civil law is practiced includes:[37][38]

See also


  1. ^ Alphabetical Index of the 192 United Nations Member States and Corresponding Legal Systems Archived 2016-07-22 at the Wayback Machine, Website of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa
  2. ^ Husa, Jaakko (2016-05-02). "The Future of Legal Families". Oxford Handbook Topics in Law. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935352.013.26. ISBN 978-0-19-993535-2.
  3. ^ Charles Arnold Baker, The Companion to British History, s.v. "Civilian" (London: Routledge, 2001), 308.
  4. ^ "The Napoleonic Code | History of Western Civilization II". Retrieved 30 January 2021.
  5. ^ Michel Fromont, Grands systèmes de droit étrangers, 4th edn. (Paris: Dalloz, 2001), 8.
  6. ^ a b c d Steiner, Eva (2018). "Codification". French Law. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198790884.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-879088-4.
  7. ^ “The role of legislation is to set, by taking a broad approach, the general propositions of the law, to establish principles which will be fertile in application, and not to get down to the details. . . .” Alain Levasseur, Code Napoleon or Code Portalis?, 43 Tul. L. Rev. 762, 769 (1969).
  8. ^ "The World Factbook". Archived from the original on 2017-12-01. Retrieved 2010-12-11.
  9. ^ a b Neubauer, David W., and Stephen S. Meinhold. Judicial Process: Law, Courts, and Politics in the United States. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007, p. 28.
  10. ^ "Glossary of Legal Terms", 12th District Court – Jackson, County, MI, retrieved on 12 June 2009: [1]
  11. ^ a b c d e Reynolds 1998, p. 58.
  12. ^ Reynolds 1998, p. 59.
  13. ^ a b "German Civil Code | German law code". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
  14. ^ "Roman Law and Its Influence". Retrieved 2011-08-18.
  15. ^ Kenneth Pennington, "Roman and Secular Law in the Middle Ages", Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, edd. F.A.C. Mantello and A.G. Rigg (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press of America, 1996), 254–266; [html], available at "Roman and Secular Law in the Middle Ages". Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2011-08-27., retrieved 27 August 2011.
  16. ^ "How the Code Napoleon makes Louisiana law different". LA-Legal. Archived from the original on 2006-10-31. Retrieved 2006-10-26.
  17. ^ "Louisiana – Judicial system". Retrieved 2011-08-18.
  18. ^ Clark, David S. (2019), Reimann, Mathias; Zimmermann, Reinhard (eds.), "Development of Comparative Law in the United States", The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Law, Oxford University Press, pp. 147–180, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198810230.013.6, ISBN 978-0-19-881023-0
  19. ^ Wang, Tay-Sheng (2014), Haley, O. John; Takenaka, Toshiko (eds.) 4.1 "The influence of Japanese law on Taiwan law," Legal Innovations in Asia, pp. 233-242 ISBN 9781783472789
  20. ^ Black's Law Dictionary – Common law (10th ed.). 2014. p. 334.
  21. ^ It is characteristic of the common law to adopt an approach based "on precedent, and on the development of the law incrementally and by analogy with established authorities". Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2018] UKSC 4 at para. 21
  22. ^ Garoupa, Nuno; Liguerre, Carlos Gomez (2011). "The Syndrome of the Efficiency of the Common Law". Boston University International Law Journal. 29: 298.
  23. ^ "5. The judges are forbidden to pronounce, by way of general and legislative determination, on the causes submitted to them." Code of Napoleon, Decree of March 5, 1803, Law 5
  24. ^ "An Introduction to Law in French-Speaking Africa". The Journal of Modern African Studies. 9 (2). 1971. doi:10.1017/S0022278X00025064.
  25. ^ The Common Law and Civil Law Traditions, Robbins Collection, University of California at Berkeley.[2] Archived 22 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Judicial Discretion in the Civil Law In the common talk among lawyers, it has even been said that in the Civil Law system legislators are almost like gods, and judges not even men."
  27. ^ "In some cases, according to some expert observers, important principles were not included in the legislation because the drafters, not having any experience in commerce, could not appreciate the importance of the principles and the advisors could not convince them of the necessity of certain principles. For example, under legislation adopted, boards of directors can be held criminally and civilly liable if the corporation does not turn a profit, not exactly a great incentive to risk taking. It illustrates the difficulty of changing societal norms. At the same time, in deciding commercial cases, the judges are not to examine the prevailing practices regarding what agreements mean within the trade at the time the contract was entered into, a fundamental concept in western commerce and judicial practice Rule of Law Assistance Impact Assessment: Armenia
  28. ^ "The Advantages of the Civil Law Judicial Design as the Model for Emerging Legal Systems". Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies. Retrieved 2024-05-10.
  29. ^ Dotevall, Rolf (2006), Smits, Jan M. (ed.), Elgar Encyclopedia of Comparative Law, '63: Sweden', Edward Elgar Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84542-013-0
  30. ^ Zhang, Mo (2010). "The Socialist Legal System with Chinese Characteristics: China's Discourse for the Rule of Law and a Bitter Experience" (PDF). Temple International & Comparative Law Journal. 24: 1–64. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  31. ^ Lei, Chen (1996). "The historical development of the Civil Law tradition in China: a private law perspective". The Legal History Review. 78 (1–2): 159–181. doi:10.1163/157181910X487350. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  32. ^ Jones, David (2015). Basic Principles of Civil Law in China. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781315491479.
  33. ^ "Towards a civil code: the italian experience".
  34. ^ Franklin, Mitchell (April 1951). ""On the Legal Method of the Uniform Commercial Code" by Mitchell Franklin". 16 (2): 330–343.
  35. ^ "Civil Law Archived 2009-10-28 at the Wayback Machine". Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2009.
  36. ^ 和仁陽「岡松参太郎 – 法比較と学理との未完の綜合 – 」『法学教室』No.183 (in Japanese) p. 79
  37. ^ "What is the Civil Law? | LSU Law – Civil Law Online".
  38. ^ "Legal system - The World Factbook".