Civil law (legal system)

Civil law, civilian law, or Roman law is a legal system originating in Europe, intellectualized within the framework of Roman law, the main feature of which is that its core principles are codified into a referable system which serves as the primary source of law. This can be contrasted with common law systems, the intellectual framework of which comes from judge-made decisional law, and gives precedential authority to prior court decisions, on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions (doctrine of judicial precedent, or stare decisis).[1][2]

Historically, a civil law is the group of legal ideas and systems ultimately derived from the Corpus Juris Civilis, but heavily overlaid by Napoleonic, Germanic, canonical, feudal, and local practices,[3] as well as doctrinal strains such as natural law, codification, and legal positivism.

Conceptually, civil law proceeds from abstractions, formulates general principles, and distinguishes substantive rules from procedural rules.[4] 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 codal article. The most pronounced features of civil systems are their legal codes, with brief legal texts that typically avoid factually specific scenarios.[5] The short articles in a civil law code deal in generalities and stand in contrast with statutory systems, which are often very long and very detailed.


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. It is the most widespread system of law in the world, in force in various forms in about 150 countries.[6] It draws heavily from Roman law, arguably the most intricate known legal system dating from before the modern era.

Where codes exist, the primary source of law is the law code, a systematic collection of interrelated articles,[7] arranged by subject matter in some pre-specified order,[8] that explain the principles of law, rights and entitlements, and how basic legal mechanisms work. Law codes are simply laws enacted by a legislature, even if they are in general much longer than other laws. Other major legal systems in the world include common law, Islamic law, Halakha, and canon law.

Legal systems of the world.[9] Civil law based systems are in turquoise.

Civil law countries can be divided into:

  • those where Roman law in some form is still living law but there has been no attempt to create a civil code: Andorra and San Marino
  • those with uncodified mixed systems in which civil law is an academic source of authority but common law is also influential: Scotland and the Roman-Dutch law countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Guyana)
  • those with codified mixed systems in which civil law is the background law but has its public law heavily influenced by common law: Puerto Rico, Philippines, Quebec and Louisiana
  • those with comprehensive codes that exceed a single civil code, such as France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Spain: it is this last category that is normally regarded as typical of civil law systems, and is discussed in the rest of this article.

The Scandinavian systems are of a hybrid character since their background law is a mix of civil law and Scandinavian customary law and they have been partially codified. Likewise, the laws of the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark) mix Norman customary law and French civil law.

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

  • the law of persons
  • property law
  • commercial law

Rather than a compendium of statutes or catalog of case law, the code sets out general principles as rules of law.[7]

Unlike common law systems, civil law jurisdictions deal with case law apart from any precedent value. Civil law courts generally decide cases using codal provisions on a case-by-case basis, without reference to other (or even superior) judicial decisions.[10] In actual practice, an increasing degree of precedent is creeping into civil law jurisprudence, and is generally seen in many nations' highest courts.[10] 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.[10] A line of similar case decisions, while not precedent per se, constitute jurisprudence constante.[10] While civil law jurisdictions place little reliance on court decisions, they tend to generate a phenomenal number of reported legal opinions.[10] 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.[10] Except for the highest courts, all publication of legal opinions are unofficial or commercial.[11]

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, literally "common law", meaning the general principles of law as opposed to laws specific to particular areas. (The use of "common law" for the Anglo-Saxon systems may or may not be influenced by this usage.)

Other Languages
한국어: 대륙법
Bahasa Indonesia: Hukum sipil (sistem hukum)
italiano: Civil law
Nederlands: Continentaal recht
日本語: 大陸法
norsk: Civil law
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Fuqarolik huquqi
Simple English: Civil law
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Kontinentalno pravo
svenska: Civil law
татарча/tatarça: Ватандашлар хокукы
Tiếng Việt: Dân luật
粵語: 民法法系
中文: 欧陆法系