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What is the Civil Law?

Civil law systems, also called continental or Romano-Germanic legal systems, are found on all continents and cover about 60% of the world. They are based on concepts, categories, and rules derived from Roman law, with some influence of canon law, sometimes largely supplemented or modified by local custom or culture. The civil law tradition, though secularized over the centuries and placing more focus on individual freedom, promotes cooperation between human beings.

In their technical, narrow sense, the words civil law describe the law that pertains to persons, things, and relationships that develop among them, excluding not only criminal law but also commercial law, labor law, etc. Codification took place in most civil law countries, with the French Code civil and the German BGB being the most influential civil codes.

What the civil law is:

  • A comprehensive system of rules and principles usually arranged in codes and easily accessible to citizens and jurists.
  • A well organized system that favors cooperation, order, and predictability, based on a logical and dynamic taxonomy developed from Roman law and reflected in the structure of the codes.
  • An adaptable system, with civil codes avoiding excessive detail and containing general clauses that permit adaptation to change.
  • A primarily legislative system, yet leaving room for the judiciary to adjust rules to social change and new needs, by way of interpretation and creative jurisprudence.

Some salient features of the civil law:

  • Clear expression of rights and duties, so that remedies are self-evident.
  • Simplicity and accessibility to the citizen, at least in those jurisdictions where it is codified.
  • Advance disclosure of rules, silence in the code to be filled based on equity, general principles, and the spirit of the law.
  • Richly developed and to some extent transnational academic doctrine inspiring the legislature and the judiciary.

Where we find the civil law:

  • ┬áIn Continental Europe, where most jurisdictions have civil codes. In Great Britain, Scotland has retained an uncodified form of the civil law. Even when they have civil codes, Scandinavian countries are not regarded as civil law jurisdictions.
  • In North America, civil codes are found in Louisiana and Quebec.
  • In Central and South America, almost all countries have civil codes.
  • In Asia, many countries have received the civil law and have civil codes, such as Indonesia, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon.
  • Countries of Africa that once were colonized by continental European nations have kept many aspects of the civil law traditions. The Civil Code of Egypt has a significant influence in Africa and the Middle East, whilst the Roman-Dutch law applied in South Africa was never codified.
  • Some remnants of the civil law traditions are to be found on some Pacific islands, especially in the French territories of New Caledonia or Tahiti.
  • In mixed jurisdictions, chiefly found in America, Africa, and Asia, but also in Europe, the civil law coexists with other legal traditions such as the common law, customary law, or Islamic law.

See an interactive map of the legal systems of the world.