Civil law is system of law that has its origins in Roman law and sets out a comprehensive system of rules, usually codified, that are applied and interpreted by judges. However, modern systems are descendants of the 19th century codification movement, during which the most important codes (most prominently the Napoleonic Code and the BGB) came into existence. The civilian system is by and large the most widely practiced system of law in the world. As discussed in detail below, the civil law systems of Scotland and South Africa are uncodified, and the civil law systems of Scandinavian countries remain largely uncodified.
Civil or civilian law is a legal tradition which is the base of the law in the majority of countries of the world, especially in continental Europe, but also in Quebec (Canada), Louisiana (USA), Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory), Japan, Latin America, and most former colonies of continental European countries. The Scottish legal system is usually considered to be a mixed system in that Scots law has a basis in Roman law, combining features of both uncodified and Civil law systems. In western and southwestern parts of the US, laws in such diverse areas as divorce and water rights show the influence of their Iberian civil law heritage, being based on distinctly different principles from the laws of the northeastern states colonized by settlers with English common-law roots.
The civil law is based on Roman law, especially the Corpus Juris Civilis of Emperor Justinian, as later developed through the Middle Ages by mediæval legal scholars.
The acceptance of Roman law had different characteristics in different countries. In some of them its effect resulted from legislative act, i.e. it became positive law, whereas in other ones it became accepted by way of its processing by legal theorists.
Consequently, Roman law did not completely dominate in Europe. Roman law was a secondary source, that was applied only as long as local customs and local laws lacked a pertinent provision on a particular matter. However, local rules too were interpreted primarily according to Roman law (it being a common European legal tradition of sorts), resulting in its influencing the main source of law also.
A second characteristic, beyond Roman law foundations, is the extended codification of the adopted Roman law, i.e. its inclusion into civil codes.
The concept of codification developed especially during the 17th and 18th century, as an expression of both Natural Law and the ideas of the Enlightment. The political ideal of that era was expressed by the concepts of democracy, protection of property, and of the rule of law. That ideal required the creation of certainty of law, through the recording of law and through its uniformity. So, the aforementioned mix of Roman law and customary and local law ceased to exist, and the road opened for law codification, which could contribute to the aims of the above mentioned political ideal.
Another reason that contributed to codification was that the notion of the nation state, that was borne during the 19th century, required the recording of the law that would be applicable to that state.
Certainly, there was also reaction to the aim of law codification. The proponents of codification, regarded it as conducive to certainty, unity, and systematic recording of law, whereas its opponents claimed that codification would result into the ossification of law.
At the end, despite whatever resistance to codification, the codification of European private laws moved forward. The French Napoleonic Code (code civil) of 1804, the German civil code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) of 1900, as well as the Swiss codes were the most influential national civil codes.
Because Germany was a rising power in the late 19th century when many poor Asian nations were introducing civil law, the German Civil Code has been the basis for the legal systems of Japan and South Korea. In China, the German Civil Code was introduced in the later years of the Qing Dynasty and formed the basis of the law of the Republic of China which remains in force in Taiwan.
Some authors consider that civil law later served as the foundation for socialist law used in Communist countries, which in this view would basically be civil law with the addition of Marxist-Leninist ideas.
Civil versus common law
Civil law is primarily contrasted against common law, which is the legal system developed among Anglo-Saxon people, especially in England.
The original difference is that, historically, common law was law developed by custom, beginning before there were any written laws and continuing to be applied by courts after there were written laws, too, whereas civil law develops out of the Roman law of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis (Corpus Iuris Civilis).
In later times, civil law became codified as droit coutumier or customary law that were local compilations of legal principles recognized as normative. Sparked by the age of enlightenment, attempts to codify private law began during the second half of the 18th century (see civil code), but civil codes with a lasting influence were promulgated only after the French Revolution, in jurisdictions such as France (with its Napoleonic Code), Austria (see ABGB), Quebec (see Civil Code of Quebec), Spain (Código Civil), the Netherlands and Germany (see Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch). However, codification is by no means a defining characteristic of a civil law system, as e.g. the civil law systems of Scandinavian countries remain largely uncodified, whereas common law jurisdictions have frequently codified parts of their laws, e.g. in the U.S. Uniform Commercial Code. There are also mixed systems, such as the laws of Scotland, Namibia and South Africa.
Thus, the difference between civil law and common law lies less in the mere fact of codification, but in the methodological approach to codes and statutes. In civil law countries, legislation is seen as the primary source of law. By default, courts thus base their judgments on the provisions of codes and statutes, from which solutions in particular cases are to be derived. Courts thus have to reason extensively on the basis of general rules and principles of the code, often drawing analogies from statutory provisions to fill lacunae and to achieve coherence. By contrast, in the common law system, cases are the primary source of law, while statutes are only seen as incursions into the common law and thus interpreted narrowly.
The underlying principle of separation of powers is seen somewhat differently in civil law and common law countries. In some common law countries, especially the United States, judges are seen as balancing the power of the other branches of government. By contrast, the original idea of separation of powers in France was to assign different roles to legislation and to judges, with the latter only applying the law (the judge as la bouche de la loi; 'the mouth of the law').
There are notable differences between the legal methodologies of various civil law countries. For example, it is often said that common law opinions are much longer and contain elaborate reasoning, whereas legal opinions in civil law countries are usually very short and formal in nature. This is in principle true in France, where judges cite only legislation, but not prior case law. (However, this does not mean that judges do not consider it when drafting opinions.) By contrast, court opinions in German-speaking countries can be as long as English ones, and normally discuss prior cases and academic writing extensively.
There are, however, certain sociological differences. Civil law judges are usually trained and promoted separately from advocates, whereas common law judges are usually selected from accomplished and reputable advocates. Also, the influence of articles by legal academics on case law tends to be much greater in civil law countries.
Civil and common law system also differ considerably in criminal procedure. In general, the judge in a civil law system plays a more active role in determining the facts of the case. Most civil law countries investigate major crimes using a so-called inquisitorial system. Also, civil law systems rely much more on written argument than oral argument.
It is a common but incorrect belief that civil law systems do not offer the presumption of innocence, when in fact they do.
The term "civil law" as applied to a legal tradition actually originates in English-speaking countries, where it was used to lump all non-English legal traditions together and contrast them to the English common law. However, since continental European traditions are by no means uniform, scholars of comparative law and economists promoting the legal origins theory usually subdivide civil law into three distinct groups:
* French civil law: in France, the Benelux countries, Italy, Spain, Portugal and former colonies of those countries;
* German civil law: in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Japan, South Korea and the Republic of China (Taiwan);
* Scandinavian civil law: in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland.
* Chinese law is a mixture of civil law and socialist law.
Portugal, Brazil and Italy have evolved from French to German influence, as their 19th century civil codes were close to the Napoleonic Code and their 20th century civil codes are much closer to the German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch. Legal culture and law schools have also come near to the German system. The other law in these countries is often said to be of a hybrid nature.
The Dutch law or at least the Dutch civil code cannot be easily placed in one of the mentioned groups either, and it has itself influenced the modern private law of other countries. The present Russian civil code is in part a translation of the Dutch one.
According to the legal origins theory promoted by some economists, civil law countries tend to emphasize social stability, while common law countries focus on the rights of an individual. In this theory, this has considerable effect on different countries' economic development.