Common Law and Civil Law systems: The sources and principles

 In International Commercial Law

Among the main legal systems of the world, English Common Law is the most widespread in the context such indicators as jurisdiction and world population, before the Napoleonic Law, the mixed Civil/Common Law and American Common Law (statistics for the world’s legal systems under these and other indicators see in table 1.1.)

As Professor Philip Wood, Special Global Counsel at the leading international law firm Allen & Overy, reveals – English Common Law in now the most common legal systems in the world with 30% of the world’s population and it is used in 27% of the 320 world’s legal jurisdictions[1]. On second place is Napoleonic Law, which is used in countries such as Brazil as well as France[2], applies to the largest share of the world’s land mass (34%), covers 23% of the world’s population and represent 26% world’s legal jurisdictions.

According to Professor Philip Wood explanations, the use of English Common Law is so widespread because it was dispersed across the globe during the growth of the British Empire. Since then these former colonies have decided to continue using the English Common Law system and it remains the legal system for increasingly important economies such as India. It should be noted, however, that despite the number of nations using English Common Law[3] this group only represents a 14% of world GDP, contrary to the American Common Law system which only covers 5% of the world’s population in terms of legal control but represent a 26% of world GDP and it is used in 20% world’s legal jurisdiction[4].

In that context interesting is also the information that the Roman-Germanic Law (Civil or Continental Law), another widespread legal system, only comprises 10% of jurisdiction and 11% of the world’s population. Its GDP is 19% of the world total[5], whereas the mixed Civil/Common Law group encompasses countries which operate under hybrid law combining both Civil and Common Law. Major economies such as Japan and China are in this group, which applies to 25% of the world’s population, and has a 16% share of world GDP.

Table 1.2. Statistics for the main legal systems of the world.

Legal system


2007 GDP*



English Common Law





Napoleonic Law





American Common Law





Roman-Germanic Law





New Laws





Mixed Civil/Common Law





Islamic Law





Unallocated law





*GDP – Gross Domestic Product, according to data published by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Source: Philip Wood, „Maps of World Financial Law”, published by Sweet & Maxwell in November 2008.

From the preceding considerations, we may deduce that the following main legal systems have to be taken into account in the analysis of a complexity reciprocal relationship and interactions, namely:

  • English and American Common Law,
  • Roman-Germanic Law (i.e. Civil or Continental Law), and
  • Islamic Law.

As already mentioned English Common Law is now the most widespread legal system in the world. It should be clearly stated that a source of the law of many countries, derived largely from custom.

The system of common law (general) replaced over a period of centuries local courts and customs, i.e., Anglo-Saxon law. Anglo-Saxon law is the name generally used to refer to the legal system that prevailed in Britain for approximately the five centuries before the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was the law of the Germanic tribes that ruled the nation following their victory over the Danes. It had much in common with the jurisprudence of related peoples on the Continent, and many customs of Anglo-Saxons law evolved into a form that survives in English and American common law. Still the system was appropriate for a rural, essentially tribal, society in which magic and ritual played much more of a role than reason and science. In what courts they were, usually bodies convened by the local temporal or spiritual noble, the primary mode of proof was by oath that went not to the truth of a specific fact but to the justice of the claim or defence as a whole. If the oath was performed properly, with the right number of oath helpers, who were also required to perform flawlessly, the oath was conclusive. If the oath was inconclusive, however, the court resorted to other ancient forms of proof, such as the ordeal. In two of the most popular ordeals, the hot water and hot iron ordeals, the offender would be made to plunge his or her hand into boiling water or to grasp a red hot iron, and the manner in which the wound healed demonstrated guilt or innocence (similar customs were used in early medieval Poland). In this way, divine providence was asked to indicate the manner in which cases would be decided.

The Anglo-Saxon system of Germanic laws was often remarkably different from the contemporary laws of other parts of continental Europe. The latter were more closely influenced by Roman law, whereas English laws, like the Scandinavian, were the expression of Teutonic legal thought[6].

Like source of law today, the Anglo-Saxon laws could be found in statutes, in authoritative statements of custom, and in various compilations of legal rules and enactments. Many royal proclamations of provisions of treaties made up the first up the first category. In the second category, a prominent example of a compilation of local customs the Domesday Book[7], a collection of Anglo-Saxon „dooms” or laws ordered by the Normans. In the third, there were many manuals on various practices, such as the formalities of betrothal , the duties of judges, collections oaths, and so on. The various provisions of the criminal law, including lists of fines, punishments, outlawry, confiscation, and rules of procedure, fax exceed in number and detail the provisions of the civil law. It is some measure of the change in the legal order that while Anglo-Saxon law had no real conception of contract, and almost no sophistication in the law property, modern common law jurisprudence relegates criminal matters to a position of minor importance and is preoccupied with the rules of commerce, manufacture, trade, and administration. Finally, while the foundation of the old laws was the spiritual power of the church, and the legal system made little or no attempt to separate religious from secular rights and duties, modern Anglo-American jurisprudence takes as a central tenet the separation of church and state.

Since 1189, English law has been described as a common law rather than civil law system (i.e. there has been no major codification of the law, and judicial precedents are binding as opposed to persuasive). This may have been due to the Norman conquest of England, which introduced a number of legal concepts and institutions from Norman law into the English system.

In the early countries of English common law, the justices and judges were responsible for adapting the Writ system[8] to meet everyday needs, applying a mixture of precedent and common sense to build up a body of internally consistent law, e.g. the Law Merchant began in the Pie-Powder Courts (a corruption of the French „pieds-poudrés” or „dusty feet”, meaning ad hoc marketplace courts). Obviously the Biblical influences throughout precedent can be seen throughout the centuries. As Parliament developed in strength, and subject to the doctrine of separation of powers, legislation gradually overtook judicial law making so that, today, judges are only able to innovate a certain very narrowly defined areas. Time before 1189 was defined in 1276 as being time immemorial.

It should be noted that English law is the legal system in England and Wales and is at once the basis of common law legal systems used in most Commonwealth[9] countries (see sub-chapter 1.1.4.) and the United States (as opposed to civil law or pluralist systems in other countries, such as Scots law).

It was exported to Commonwealth countries while the British Empire was established and maintained, and it forms the basis of the jurisprudence of most of those countries. English law prior to the American revolution is still part of the law of the United States , except in Louisiana[10], and provides the basis for many American legal traditions and policies, though it has no superseding jurisdiction.

The essence of English common law is that it is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of legal precedent (stare decisis[11]) to the facts before them. It should be clearly indicate, that, in consequence, the legal systems within the United Kingdom were based largely on judge-made law (law developed through decisions by judges necessary to decide cases brought before them – called „common law” or „case law”) until around the seventeenth century. Each jurisdiction developed its own forms of common law, with Scotland being especially distinct from the rest. Since that time, new laws and law reform have increasingly been brought about through Acts of Parliament, usually inspired by policies of the Government of the day. Even so, the development of case-law still remains and important source of law. A statement of law made by a judge in a case can become binding on later judges and can in this way become the law for everyone to follow. Whether or not a particular pronouncement (technically called a precedent) by a judge sitting in court when deciding a case does become binding (according to the doctrine of „stare decisis”[12] – stand by what has previously been decided) on later judges depends on two main factors:

  1. The pronouncement must be made by a court of sufficient seniority. Basically, judges at the lowest tiers of decision making (often called courts of first instance), are not allowed to issue binding precedents. Often, the cases are not fully reported anyway, so it is not clear what has been decided. In addition, these judges may not be hearing full legal arguments but are concentrating on factual findings. So, it is the higher courts which issue binding rulings and the lower courts must follow them[13].
  2. The pronouncement must have formed the ratio decidendi[14] of the case (this is Latin for the reasoning behind the decision). The reasoning must be a matter pertaining to the law rather than a factual decision. In addition, the pronouncement must not be obiter dictum[15] – something said either about the law or the facts of the case which is „by the way” in other words, not strictly necessary for the legal basis for the decisions. Only the ratio decidendi will be binding[16].

It will comprise the legal principles and rules which are necessary to solve the problem before the court. Obiter dicta are not binding, but they may be treated as of „persuasive authority” – later judges are entitled to read them and be influenced by them, but they are not obliged to follow these parts of judicial pronouncements[17].

We can summarize these rules – as the doctrine of precedent or (use lawyer’s language), the doctrine stare decisis, and a later judge will have to determine:

  • what pronouncements from earlier decisions are binding, and
  • whether any is relevant – the later judge may say that the case before the court is „distinguishable” from the earlier case (i.e. has materially different facts so as to fall within different areas of law)[18].

In the United States federal courts and in most of its state courts, stare decisis is the policy of the court to stand by precedent. In other words, the term is but an abbreviation of stare decisis et quieta non movere – „to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled”. Consider the word „decisis”. The word means, iterally and legally, the decision. Nor is the doctrine stare decisis; it is not „to stand by or keep to what was said”. Nor is the doctrine stare rationibus dividendi – „to keep to the rationes decidendi of past cases”. Rather, under the doctrine of stare decisis is important only for what it decides – for the „what”, not for the „why”, and not for the „how”. Insofar as precedent is concerned, stare decisis is important only for the decision, for the detailed legal consequence following a detailed set of facts[19]. Simply speaking, stare decisis applies to the holding of a case, rather to obiter dicta („things said by the way”), because „dicta may be followed if sufficiently persuasive but are not binding”. The doctrine that holdings have binding precedential value is not valid within most civil law jurisdictions as it is argued that this principle interferes with the right of judges to interpret law and the right of the legislature to make law[20]. Most such systems, however, recognize the concept of jurisprudence constante, which argues that even though judges are independent, they should judge in a predictable and non-chaotic manner. Therefore, judge’s right to interpret law does not preclude the adoption of a small number of selected binding case laws[21].

In the U.S. legal system, the principle of stare decisis is most flexible in constitutional cases, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right, but in cases involving the Federal Constitution, where correction through legislative action is practically impossible, the U.S. Supreme Court has often overruled its earlier decisions[22].

It should be added that the sources of law in the United States common law system are constitutional, legislative, judicial, and administrative.

The Constitution of The United States allocates governmental power between the federal and the state governments and among the three branches of the federal government.

The federal government has the powers expressly conferred on it by the Constitution together with implied powers necessary and proper for carrying out the express powers. All other powers are reserved to the states or to the people. In accordance with the doctrine of separation of powers the Constitution distributes federal powers among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the federal government. Most state constitutions and governments follow the federal model. Within the framework established by the Constitution, each state is free to develop its own law. All states except, as mentioned, Louisiana adopted some version of the English legal system – common law as supplemented by a separate system of equity[23].

In most states, common law and equity were merged into a single system as to procedure; nevertheless, the common law and equity retain separate identities. The common law and equity can be distinguished by:

  1. the nature of the remedy being sought,
  2. the manner of enforcements of judgments, and
  3. the right to trial by jury in a court of law but in equity[24].

Legislative sources of law include the following classes of law:

  1. Federal and state constitutions.
  2. Federal and state statutes (acts).
  3. Federal treaties.
  4. Executive orders and proclamations issued by the president of the United States or by state governors when authorized by statute.
  5. Administrative rules and regulations when authorized by statute, which have the force and effect of law.
  6. Ordinances of the subdivisions of the states, such as cities and towns.

Judicial decisions are a twofold source of law:

  1. courts, through their decisions, interpret and test the validity and application of enacted laws (legislative sources of law) in the light of constitutional provisions and the intent of the Congress, legislative, local government, or agency that formulated them; and
  2. in areas not covered by legislation, courts apply the common law and expand it with decisions that apply to new situations.

Thus, courts play a major role in determining how laws may be applied, what restrains laws place upon individuals and businesses, and what privileges individuals and businesses can expect to enjoy under the law. To this extent, it is frequently said that, through their decisions that appear in the reported cases, courts make laws.

Administrative sources of law in the United States – the regulations of an administrative agency, when published in a government publication called the Federal Register, have the force and effect of law.

We turn now to the main aspect which in this sub-chapter discusses, namely, to the sources and principles of Law in United Kingdom.

There are five sources of law in England. The five sources are:

  1. common law,
  2. statute law,
  3. subordinate legislation,
  4. custom, and
  5. European Community law (and in the future perhaps, the European Convention on Human Rights)[25].

Common law.

The legal systems within the United Kingdom were based largely, as mentioned, on judge-made law (law developed through decisions by judges necessary to decide cases brought before them – called „common law” or case – law) until around the seventeenth century. Each jurisdiction developed its own forms of common law, with Scotland being especially distinct from the rest. Since that time, new law and law reform have increasingly been brought about through Acts of Parliament, usually inspired by policies of the government of the day. Even so, the development of case – law still remains an important source of law. Its rules are developed through a series of cases decided by judges over a period of years. Sometimes this period may be fairly short when the law is developing rapidly, at other times development make take centuries. What constitutes the common law is not so much the actual decision in a particular case as the principles upon which that decision is based. Each case helps to develop the principle a little further.

In deciding what does and does not form part of the common law it is necessary to consider the status of the court making the particular decision. Not only is there the distinction between the decision in the particular case and the principles upon which that decision is based, but there is also a distinction between the various levels of courts within the hierarchy of courts. From the level of Justices of the Peace sitting as a panel to the stipendiary Magistrate sitting alone. Some of which can and others of which cannot contribute to the common law. The superior courts start upwards from the High Court of Justice through the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords.

The decision of the superior courts are considered by experienced members of the legal profession who decide whether or not a particular decision should be published in the series of books known as the „Law Reports”. Not all decision made by the higher courts are published in the Law Reports. If a decision does not develop the law further it is not published. The principles of common law are very flexible, as for example, mentioned already, the doctrine of „stare decisis”.

The doctrine of binding precedent of stare decisis is basic to the English legal system, and to the legal systems that derived from it such as those of Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Singapore and New Zealand. As mentioned, a precedent is a statement made of the law by a judge in deciding a case. The doctrine states that within the hierarchy of the English courts a decision by a superior court will be binding on inferior courts. This means that when judges try cases they must check to see if similar cases have been tried by a court previously. If there was a precedent set by an equal or superior court, than a judge should obey that precedent. If there is a precedent set by an inferior court, a judge does not have to follow it, but may consider it The House of Lords (not the Supreme Court) however does not have to obey its own precedents.

It should be remember that only the statements of law are binding. This is known as the reason for the decision or ratio decidendi. All other reasons are „by the way” or orbiter dictum. A precedent does not bind a court if it finds there was a lack of care in the original „per incuriam”[26]. For example, if a statutory provision or precedent had not been brought to the previous courts attention before its decision, the precedent had not be binding. Also, if a court finds a material difference between cases then it can choose not to be bound by the precedent. Persuasive precedents are those that have been set by courts lower in the hierarchy. They may be persuasive, but are not binding. Most importantly, precedents can be overruled by a subsequent decision by the superior court or by an Act of Parliament.

Generally speaking, precedent has a very important role in the common law. It ensures certainty and consistency and logical progression and development in the law. At the same time it can be rigid and also complex – what is across many cases. So, many countries (especially in Continental Europe) prefer a codified system in which laws are set out in legislation and cases which apply them may be illustrative but do not became binding. It should be noted that the law is also easier to find and to state and is rationally prospective rather than based on the chance event of litigation, which may give rise to law based on extreme or unusual situations or unevenly argued cases[27].

Statute law

Statute law is very prominent in the public mind although statute law takes third place after common law and subordinate legislation as a source of legal rules. Statute law is law produced by Act of Parliament. „Act of Parliament” and „Statute law” are interchangeable terms. Statute law is made by the Parliament itself when a new Act is Needed. The intended Act has to pass through readings in each House of Parliament and then receive the assent of the Queen before it becomes a law. Statutes can be applied to all or any combination of jurisdictions within the United Kingdom, whereas the common law jurisdictions are more limited. Acts of Parliament which apply to everyone throughout one or more jurisdictions are called public general Acts. But Acts may also be limited to geographical locations within a jurisdiction (e.g. local bye-laws) or to specific persons or companies.

Although the courts can develop the common law to meet the changing needs of the community, they can only do so as cases come before them. There might be an urgent need for a development of the law, and yet no case dealing with that aspect might come before a superior court at the time. Parliament can meet the need immediately by passing an Act. When a case does come before a superior court, that court can only deal with those aspects of law involved in the case. It cannot lay down a comprehensive code of the type that can be set out in an Act. There can also be a need for an Act if Parliament considers that the existing law is wrong, or if it considers that a court has wrongly decided what the law is and wants to substitute its own view of the law.

It should be also added that statutes which reflect English common law are understood always to be interpreted in light of the common law tradition, and so may leave a number of things unsaid because they are already understood from the point of view of pre-existing case law and custom. This can readily be seen in the area of criminal law, which while remaining largely governed by the common law in England, has been entirely codified in many U.S. states. Codification is the process where a statute is passed with the intention of restating the common law position in a single document rather than creating new offences, so the common law remains relevant to their interpretation[28].

By contrast to the statutory codifications of common law, some laws are purely statutory, and may create a new cause of action beyond the common law. Courts generally interpret statutes that create new causes of action narrowly – that is, limited to their precise terms – because the courts generally recognize the legislature as being supreme in deciding the reach of judge – made law unless such statute should violate some „second order” constitutional law provision (compare judicial activism)[29].

Subordinate legislation

Subordinate legislation is legislation made under the authority of an Act of Parliament. Sometimes the statute is a mere skeleton and the major part of the legislation has to be built up by the Secretary of State or by the minister with the administering of an Act. Subordinate legislation fills in the details of an Act Parliament.

Today the bulk of subordinate legislation in any given year is several times larger than the volume of statute law produced in the same period.


In the early period of the common law custom was a very important source of legal rules. Many such rules were incorporated into common law itself.

At the present time custom as such plays very little part in the development of law, partly because both the courts and Parliament plays such a large role themselves that they do not wait for the law to be shaped by custom. The principal role of custom today is to be found in the law of meetings, some of the rules in this area still being rules of custom.

Civil Law Systems.

The second predominant system of law in the world is civil law. Civil law (in Latine ius civile) is a legal system inspired by Roman Law (especially the Corpus Iuris Civilis of Emperor Justinian, as later developed through the Middle Ages by medieval legal scholars)[30]. The primary feature of Roman Law is that laws are written into a collection, codified, and not determined , as in common law, by judges[31]. Conceptually, it is the group of legal ideas and systems ultimately derived, as mentioned, from the code of Justinian, but heavily overlaid by Germanic, ecclesiastical, feudal, and local practices, as well as doctrinal strains such as natural law, codification, and legislative positivism[32]. Materially civil law proceeds from abstractions, formulates general principles, and distinguishes substantive rules from procedural rules.

It is largely classified and structured and contains a great number of general rules and principles, but often locking details. One of the basic characteristics of the civil law is that the courts main task is to apply and interpret the law contained in a code, or a statute to case facts. The assumption is that the code regulates all cases that could occur in practice, and when certain cases are not regulated by the code, the courts should apply some of the general principles used to fill the gaps. This means that it holds legislation as the primary source of law, and the court system is usually inquisitorial, unbound by precedent, and composed of specially – trained judicial officers.

It should be also added that the principle of civil law is to provide all citizens with an accessible and written collection of the law which apply to them and which judges must follow. Generally speaking, it is the most prevalent and oldest surviving legal system in the world. 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[33] and former Soviet Union, but also in Quebec (Canada), Louisiana (USA), Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory), Japan, Latin America, and most former colonies of continental European countries.

It is true that the civil law is the most widespread system of law in the world (it encompasses 78 sovereign countries and 19 non-independent territories versus 23 independent states and 26 dependent territories with varying degrees of autonomy[34]), but this legal system isn’t monolithic so much as, for example, Anglo-American common law system.

It should be noted that civil law systems may be subdivided into following categories:

  • Countries where Roman law in some form is still living law and there has been no attempt to create a civil code, like partly Andorra[35], San Marino[36] and Haiti[37] (The legal system of those states are still based on the old Ius Commune).
  • Countries with mixed systems in which Roman law is an academic source of authority but common law is also influential. Scotland[38] and the Roman-Dutch law countries (South Africa[39], Zambia[40], Zimbabwe[41], Sri Lanka[42] and Guyana[43])
  • Countries with codes intended to be comprehensive, such as France: it is this last category that is normally regarded as typical „civil law” systems.

On the other hands, the same scholars of comparative law promoting the legal origins theory usually subdivide civil law into four distinct groups:

  1. Romanistic, which encompasses countries there represented French civil law, i.e. : France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Canadian Province of Quebec, the U.S. state of Louisiana, Italy, Spain and former colonies of those countries.
  2. Germanic, which encompasses those counties there represented German civil law, as for instance: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Croatia, Portugal, Brazil, Turkey, Japan, South Korea and the Republic of China (Taiwan).
  3. Scandinavian, which encompasses the countries of Scandinavian civil law as Denmark, Norway and Sweden. As former colonies, Finland and Iceland inherited the system from their neighbours.
  4. Chinese, and exactly People’s Republic of China (PRC) which legal system is a mixture of civil law and socialist law.

In reference to this categorization, it should be added the some following remarks:

  • Firstly, the civil law is sometimes referred to as neo-Roman law, Romano-Germanic law or Continental European law but it should be also remember that the antithesis between the Anglo-Saxon laws and Romano-Germanic laws, is of a technical rather than of an ideological nature. According to Rene David[44], the Romano-Germanic legal systems included those countries where legal science was formulated on the basis of Roman Law, whereas common law countries are those where law created from the judges . In my opinion the original difference between those legal system 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 developed out of the Roman law of Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis (Body of Civil Law). 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 Civil Code of 1804), Duchy of Warsaw/Congress Poland (see Kodeks cywilny 1806/1825), Austria (see The Allgemeines Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch [ABGB], which was enacted in 1811), Quebec (see Civil Code of Quebec), Italy (Codice Civile), Portugal (Código Civil), the Netherlands (see Burgelijk Wetboek), and Germany (see Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch of 1896).

It should be noted that the 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 are not grouped into larger, expansive codes like those found in France and Germany.

Secondly, it is important to note that the countries such as Portugal, Brazil and Italy have evolved from French to German influence , as their 19th century civil codes were close to the Napoleonic Code , but their 20th century civil codes are much closer to the German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch. More recently, the Brazil’s 2002 Civil Code was inspired on the Italian civil code of 1942, aiming at the unification of private law. 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.

  • Thirdly, the Scandinavian systems are of an intermediate character, as they have a background of Roman and customary law together with partial codification (for example Norway legal system is a mixture of customary law, civil law system, and common law traditions). The law of Quebec may also be considered as a hybrid system, in that a French-type civil code coexists with pre-revolutionary French customary law and considerable common law influence.
  • Fourthly, the Chinese (PRC) legal system is a hybrid. In a broad sense, the laws of the People’s Republic of China should comprise of three components:
  1. the laws of the P.R.C., which was constituted in 1949 when the new government was founded.
  2. the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), a former British colony returned to the P.R.C. in 1997, but still employs the common law system;
  3. the Laws of Macao Special Administrative Region (Macao SAR), a former Portuguese colony returned to China in 1999, but has retained the legal system similar to that of Portugal.

The laws of Taiwan[45], the remaining part of the former Republic of China, has developed its own legal system different from that of the mainland after the Nationalists of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek lost the civil war to the Communists in 1949 and retreated to Taiwan in Dec. 1949. Though the Chinese legal system is claimed to be distinct from all other legal systems, jurists of the P.R.C. follow the same rules of the civil law family.

The legislation of the PRC reflects a structural similarity to countries within the Romano-Germanic family, for instance, Germany and France. Moreover Chinese jurists value legal doctrines and hold written law in high esteem; concrete judicial decisions are not officially considered a source of law[46].

In 1986 the National People’s Congress adopted the General Principles of the Civil Law of The People’s Republic of China, which helped clarify the scope of the civil law[47].From the point of view some scholars, however, the business law, such as corporation law, bankruptcy law, insurance law, and law on negotiable instruments, is distinguished from civil law.

However, in contrast to other civil law jurisdictions, the PRC has not yet consolidated its civil law into a single code, and the Chinese civil law has developed in such a way that leads to a large amount of confusion and contradiction with the legal code.

Finally, it should be noted that some systems of civil law do not fit neatly into above mentioned typology, however.

For example, the Polish civil 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, namely:

  • French code civil 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 system. Today the Polish legal system is based on the Civil Code of 1964[48].

On the other hand, the Dutch law, or at least the Dutch civil code (the Burgerlijk Wetboek) cannot be easily placed in one of the mentioned groups either, but it has itself influenced the modern private law of other countries. The present Russian civil code (The New Civil Code of the Russian Federation[49]) is in part a translation of the Dutch one.

Similar, the law in the state of Louisiana is based in part on civil law. Louisiana is the only U.S. state partially based on French and Spanish codes and ultimately Roman Law, as opposed to English common law. In Louisiana, private law is based on the Louisiana Civil Code[50](the first code of 1808 was written in French and translated into English). The current state of Louisiana law has converged considerably with U.S. law.


[1] P.Wood, „Maps of World Financial”, Sweet & Maxwell Publishers, 2008.

[2] Napoleonic law was spread by the French Empire and by emulation. Egypt is one example of a country that kept Napoleonic law after it was occupied by the French in the Napoleonic Wars. Some countries, particularly in Latin America, adopted Napoleonic law because the code was the most advanced contemporary model to borrow from at the time that they were looking to formalize a legal system (see subchapter 1.1.4)

[3] UK law firms are some of the largest in the world and many international contracts are drafted using English law, including syndicated credits, bond issues and master derivates contracts.

[4] Outside of the United States American Common Law has been adopted by a limited number of countries such as Liberia and unincorporated US territories such as Guam, The Philippines and Puerto Rico.

[5] Some countries chose to adopt Roman-Germanic Law because they thought it was a superior system in comparison to the other legal groups, also because as it is a codified system it is easy for another country to copy. Countries that chose to use a Roman-Germanic style of legal system include the Netherlands, Switzerland and Turkey (see sub-chapter 1.1.4).

[6] F. Pollock, F.W. Maitland, „The History of English Law Before the Tome of Edward I”, Vol. I (second edition), Cambridge: University Press, pp. 25–63.

[7] The Domesday Book is the record of the great survey of England completed in 1086, executed for William I of England, or William Conqueror. The Domesday Book is really two independent works. One, known as Little Domesday, covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The other Great Domesday, covers the rest of England, except for lands in the north that would later become Westmorland Cumberland, Northumberland and Country Durham. There are also no surveys of London, Winchester and some other towns. The omission of these two major cities is probably due to their size and complexity. Most of Cumberland and Westmorland are missing because they were not conquered until some time after they survey, and County Durham is locking as the Bishop of Durham (William de St-Calais) had the exclusive night to tax Durham; parts of the north east of England were covered by the 1183 Boldon Book, which listed those areas liable to tax by the Bishop of Durham. The omission of the other countries has not been fully explained.

[8] According to Professor Edward C. Martin explanations:

„In the early days of the English common law system of jurisprudence, the legal system was entirely subordinate to the King. Since the King was sovereign, all access to the King’s courts was controlled by the King’s designated representatives. In the legal system, these individuals (known as „writ writers”) issued special documents (referred to as writ) thout, in effect, granted the King’s permission for the complaining party to sue another one of the King’s subjects is one of the King’s courts.

Initially, in order to obtain one of these writs, the complaining party appeared before the King’s writ writer and presented his claim. If the essence of the complaint came within the scope of the writ writer’s authority, he would issue a specialized writ (usually for a free) that allowed the „case” to proceed into court. However, if the facts could not be fit squarely within one of these specialized writs, then the writ writer could not issue a writ and the complaining party simply had no further legal recourse against the offending party. Thus, the writ writers became very important in determining whether or not aggrieved parties could seek legal redress for their grievances in the King’s courts. These „writs” were the precursors for modern-day „forms” of action. (See in: „Historical background: The common law Writ system” by Professor Edward C. Martin, „The English Common Law Writ System”, Cumberland School of Law, Samford University 2001,

[9] Commonwealth of Nations succeeded the British Imperium, formerly the „British Commonwealth – is a voluntary association of 54 independent sovereign states, most of which are former British colonies, or dependences of these colonies with three exceptions, Mozambique (which was a Portuguese possession), Rwanda (which was a Belgian mandate) and Cameroon (which was partly a German territory and partly French and British colony) plus the United Kingdom itself.

[10] Louisiana became a French crown colony in 1731 but was ceded to Spain in 1763 after the French and Judian Wars. (The portion east of the Mississippi came under British control in 1764). Louisiana reverted to France in 1800 and was sold by Napoleon to the U.S. in 1803. The southern part, known as the territory of Orleans, became the state of Louisiana in 1812 (see-subchapter 1.1.4.).

[11] The English doctrine of stare decisis („maintain what has been decided and do not alter that which has been established”) compels lower courts to follow decisions rendered in higher courts, hence establishing an order of priority of sources by „reason of authority”. Stare decisis is unknown to civil law, where judgments rendered by judges only enjoy the „authority of reason”. The distinction makes sense. Confusion would result in the common law world if the core of the law was to differ from one court to the other. This is no true in the civil law world, where the general principles are embodied in national codes and statutes, and where doctrine provides guidance in their interpretation, leaving to judges the task of applying the law.

[12] Precedent is a statement made of the law by a judge in deciding a case. There are two types, binding and persuasive. Binding precedent is one made by higher courts of law that a judge is not obliged to follow. A persuasive precedent are examples brought in from interior courts or from equal level court of another district and may used for consideration, but superior courts or any courts another district are not constrained to obey.

[13] R. David, J.E.C. Brierley, „Major Legal Systems in the World Today”, 3Ed., Stevens & Sons, London, 1985, pp. 75—92.

[14] Ratio decidendi: The reason for a decision. It is legal phrase which refers to the legal, moral, political, and social principles used by a court to compose the rationale of a particular judgment. Unlike obiter dicta, the principles of judgment for ratio decidendi are potentially binding precedent, through the principle of stare decisis .

[15] Obiter dictum: an opinion voiced by judge on a point of law not directly bearing on the case in question and, therefore, not binding.

[16] J. Martin, „The English Legal System”, 4th ed., Hodder Arnold, London, 2005, pp. 25–27.

[17] Ch. Arnold-Baker, „The Companion to British History”, Routledge, London, 2001, pp. 386–387.

[18] R.C. van Caenegem, „The Birth of the English Common Law” (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 89–98.

[19] S. Foster, „Should Courts Give Stare Decisis Effect to Statutory Interpretation Methodology”, The Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 96, 2008, pp. 1864–1869.

[20] See J.C. Wells, „A Treatise on the Doctrines of Res Adjudicata and Stare Decisis”, Publ. Mills, Des Moines, Iowa, 2010, pp. 408.

[21] Th.E. Holland, „The Elements of Jurisprudence”, The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd; Clark, New Jersey, 2006, p. 4.

[22] W.W. Willoughby, „The Constitutional Law of the United States”, Baker, Voorhis & Company, New York, 1910, vol. I, chapter II, sec. 28.

[23] E. Boutmy, „Studies In Constitutional Law: France – England – United States”, Macmillan & Co., London, New York, 1891, pp. 35–47 and 71–82.

[24] J.N. Pomeroy, „Introduction to the constitution law of the U.S.”, Ed. By Bennett, Boston, 1886, pp. 166–205.

[25] I will try to give some short explanations of all these apart – from the European Community law, which is the same as e.g. in Sweden. Where the EC law is applicable it takes precedence over domestic law. It is normally applied by the domestic courts, but the most authoritative rulings are given by the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg.

[26] Per incuriam: refers to a judgment of a court which has been decided without reference to a statutory provision or earlier judgment which would have been relevant.

[27] R. Pound, „The Spirit of the Common Law”, Marshall Jones Company Publishers, Francetown, New Hampshire, 1921, pp. 114–115 and 140–147.

[28] S. Carter, „A Guide to the UK Legal System”, Publ. Nov. 2005, N.Y. University School of Law.

[29] J. Bellhouse and P. Cowan, „Common Law „Time at Large” Arguments in a Civil Law Context”, in: Construction Law Journal, No.8, 2007, pp. 10.

[30] Ch.S. Lobinger, „The Evolution of the Civil Law”, (Publ. by the author), 1915 (U.S. archives).

[31] W. Wołodkiewicz, „Europa i prawo rzymskie. Szkice z historii europejskiej kultury prawnej”, Publ. By Wolters Kluwer, Warszawa, 2009, pp. 704, and T.Maciejewski, „Leksykon historii prawa i ustroju”, Publ. By C.H. Beck, Kraków, 2009, pp. 776.

[32] H.T. Terry, „An Elementary Treatise on the Common Law”, (fifth edition), Publ.: Maruzen Company, Ltd., Tokyo, 1917, pp. 16-21.

[33] Ibidem.; p.16.

[34] H.M Kritzer, „Legal Systems of The World: A Political, Social, and Cultural Encyclopedia” ( in 4 volumes, 1883 pp), Publ.: ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara (CA), 2002, and R. David, J.E.C. Brierley, „Major legal systems in the world today. An introduction to the comparative study of law”, Publ.: Stevens, London, New York, 1978 (2nd ed.), 584 pp.

[35] Courts apply the customary laws of Andorra, supplemented with Roman law and customary Catalan law (

[36] Generally, the legal system of San Marino is based on civil law system with Italian law influences; has not accepted compulsory of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction (see: CIA – The World Factbook, 2009).

[37] Haiti legal system is based on Roman civil law system; accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction.

[38] 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 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.

[39] The South Africa legal system is an amalgam of English common law and Roman–Dutch civil law (with the elements of Roman law) as well as customary law.

[40] The legal system of Zambia is based mainly on English common law and customary law with the elements of Roman law.

[41] Generally, legal system of Zimbabwe is a mixture of Roman-Dutch and English common law.

[42] The Sri Lanka legal system is a highly complex mixture of English common law, Roman-Dutch, Muslim, Sinhalese, and customary law.

[43] Guyana legal system is based on English common law with certain admixtures of Roman-Dutch law.

[44] R. David and C. Jauffret-Spinosi, „Les grands systems de droit contemperains”, 11 éd., Paris, Dalloz, 2002, pp. 75–77.

[45] The official name of Taiwan today, is Republic of China.

[46] Yin-Ching Chen, „Civil Law Development: China and Taiwan”, Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs. Vol. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 8–14.

[47] It should be clearly indicated that, essentially, the conception of civil law of a fundamentally different nature from that in a Continental legal system: Even though civil law is constructed as an abstract institution with universal validity, its usefulness is conditional upon the prevailing tolerance toward economic freedoms. Further, although abstract notions of rights are established, such rights are seen as powers granted but not entitlements recognized by the state. It is this kind of conception of rights that fuses „private law” with „public law”, legal rights with administrative powers and paves the way for infringements of or breaches in the autonomy of private (civil) law. This fundamental problem clearly runs through the institutions of legal personality and property. The upholding of a socialist ideology, though often only paid lip service, has clearly hold up the development of sophisticated civil law theories and institutions. The development of the institutions of property is in particular hampered by such ideological considerations. In this area, it is odd to see that a country so much oriented towards pragmatism has so rigidly adhered to such a notion as „right of operation”, which has failed in all (former) socialist countries in dealing with the property rights of SOEs. Here fundamental conceptual changes are required, de-politicization of legal concepts is warranted, and property must be „privatized” as universally practiced that all property, be it owned by private persons or the state, is private and enjoys equal protection.

Structurally, the civil law institutions of PRC are to elementary, thus leaving many uncertainties and gaps between individual statutes. On the other hand, this elementary system also allows further developments in the various areas of civil law. The problem is, however, inconsistent and confusing. Such ad hoc developments are now at odds with the emphasis on „universality” and „equality” in civil law relations as well as efforts towards uniform laws (such as the reform in tax and company law). Economic equality and civil law uniformity is best archived though the codification of a comprehensive civil code. (See: J. Chen, „Chinese Law: Towards an Understanding of Chinese Law, Its Nature and Development”, op. cit., pp. 246–247, and „Implementations of Law in the People’s Republic of China (Edited by: J. Chen, Y. Li, J.M. Otto), Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht (Netherland), 2002.

[48] See „Ustawa z dnia 23 kwietnia 1964 r. Kodeks Cywilny”, Dz. U. Nr 16, poz. 93, with further amendments.

[49] The Civil Code of the Russian Federation came into force in four parts. The first part, which deals with general provisions (i.e. defines sources, names legal entity, etc.) was enacted by the State Duma in 1994 and entered into force in 1995. The second part (dealing with Law of obligations) entered into force in 1996. The third part (Succession law) entered into force in 2002. The document has certain basic principles:

  • equality of all participants guaranteed by civil law;
  • inviolability of private property,
  • freedom of contract,
  • free exercise of civil rights, and
  • juridical protection of civil rights.

The fourth part, dealing with intellectual property, was signed into law on December 18, 2006 and came into force on January 1, 2008. Part IV became the first in the world truly full codification of the legislation on intellectual property.

[50] Law in the state of Louisiana is based in part on civil law but it is incorrect to say that the Louisiana Civil Code is, or stems from, the Napoleonic Code; rather, the two law codes stem from common sources. Although the developing Napoleonic Code strongly influenced Louisiana law, it was not enacted until 1804, one year after the Louisiana Purchase.

It should be remember that Louisiana had been a Spanish colony since 1762, and therefore the main source Louisiana jurisprudence may in fact be Spanish. Napoleon Bonaparte returned Louisiana to French control from Spain in 1800, under the Treaty of San Ildefonso. However, the treaty was kept secret, and Louisiana remained under Spanish control until a transfer of power to France on November 30, 1803, and from France to the Unites States on December 30, 1803, just twenty days later. It was the acquisition by the United States of 2,147.000 km² of the French territory (U.S. paid 60 million francs, i.e. $ 11,250.000 plus cancellation of debts worth 18 million francs, i.e. $ 3,750.000, a total cost 15 million dollars for the Louisiana territory).

Great differences exist between Louisiana civil law and common law found in all other American states. While many differences have been bridged due to the strong influence of common law, the „civilian” tradition is still deeply rooted in Louisiana private law and in some parts of criminal law.

One often-cited distinction is that while common law courts are bound by stare decisis and tend to rule based on precedents, judges in Louisiana rule based on their own interpretation of the law. This distinction is not terribly crisp, though. Civil law has its own parallel respect for established precedent, the doctrine of jurisprudence constante.

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