Essay Contrasting Civil Law And Common Law

IN THE summer of 2013 British royalists were eagerly awaiting the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child. If the couple had had a girl instead of bonny Prince George, she would have been the first daughter to be able to accede to the throne ahead of any younger brothers. That is thanks to a law enacted in 2011 that changed the rules of royal succession. The previous law that sons took precedence over older sisters was never written down, but was instead part of English common law, the basis of the country’s legal system. But just what is common law, and how does it differ from the civil-law system used in some other countries?

Common law is a peculiarly English development. Before the Norman conquest, different rules and customs applied in different regions of the country. But after 1066 monarchs began to unite both the country and its laws using the king’s court. Justices created a common law by drawing on customs across the country and rulings by monarchs. These rules developed organically and were rarely written down. By contrast, European rulers drew on Roman law, and in particular a compilation of rules issued by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century that was rediscovered in 11th-century Italy. With the Enlightenment of the 18th century, rulers in various continental countries sought to produce comprehensive legal codes.

Today the difference between common and civil legal traditions lies in the main source of law. Although common-law systems make extensive use of statutes, judicial cases are regarded as the most important source of law, which gives judges an active role in developing rules. For example, the elements needed to prove the crime of murder are contained in case law rather than defined by statute. To ensure consistency, courts abide by precedents set by higher courts examining the same issue. In civil-law systems, by contrast, codes and statutes are designed to cover all eventualities and judges have a more limited role of applying the law to the case in hand. Past judgments are no more than loose guides. When it comes to court cases, judges in civil-law systems tend towards being investigators, while their peers in common-law systems act as arbiters between parties that present their arguments.

Civil-law systems are more widespread than common-law systems: the CIA World Factbook puts the numbers at 150 and 80 countries respectively. Common-law systems are found only in countries that are former English colonies or have been influenced by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, such as Australia, India, Canada and the United States. Legal minds in civil-law jurisdictions like to think that their system is more stable and fairer than common-law systems, because laws are stated explicitly and are easier to discern. But English lawyers take pride in the flexibility of their system, because it can quickly adapt to circumstance without the need for Parliament to enact legislation. In reality, many systems are now a mixture of the two traditions, giving them the best of both legal worlds.

This first two lines of this piece were updated on December 2nd 2015 to change tenses and reflect the birth of Prince George. 

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Common Law Civil Law Essay



Civil law primarily contrasted against common law. The significant

difference is that, historically, common law was developed by

custom whereas civil law was developed by legal principles and the

interpretation of doctrinal writings rather than application of facts to

legal fictions. 'Common-law is extremely decentralized in terms of

the source of law (making place for evolving cultural changes) is

highly centralized in its administration because of the weight of

precedent. On the other hand, the civil-law which is centralized in

its source leaves from for a great deal of ad hoc interpretation.'

(Crump M.W.& Kahalas H. 1975). Therefore the civil-law is by its

nature more capable than the common-law and more adaptable to

changing situations.

The Other distinction between the common law and civil law

systems is that the role of precedent has tended to become less

significant. Common law courts have developed skills in

distinguishing earlier judgments of which they disapprove and civil

law system, precedents have a value. Civil law countries try to

ensure that there is some certainty in the law and the same issue

will be decided in the same way. Civil law tradition prevents its

judges from establishing broad principles of law in the absence of

legislation. But in the common law system there is open possibility

for the same case.

'In civil law countries, legislation is seen as the primary source of

law. Thus, courts base their judgements on the provisions of codes

and statutes, from which solutions in particular cases are to be

derived.' (MacQueenH.L. 2000) By contrast, in the common law

system, cases are the primary sources of law, while statutes are

only seen as incursions into the common law and thus interpreted


Furthermore, separation of powers is differently in civil law and

common law countries. 'Some common law countries, especially the

United States, judge are balancing the power of the other branches

of government.'(Renz,D&John, E.C. 1985). By contrast, in civil law

countries judges are only applying the law. There are, however,

sociological differences. 'Civil law judges are usually trained and

promoted separately from attorneys, whereas common law judges

are usually selected from accomplished and...

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