Civil Law Systems

  • They have their origin in the Roman legal tradition.
  • Civil systems vary widely, both in procedure and substantive law, so conducting research on a particular nation's civil law system should include looking at that nation's specific system of law, but they do have some trademark characteristics.  
  • Nations with civil law systems have comprehensive, frequently updated legal codes. Most importantly, case law is a secondary source in these jurisdictions.
  • France and Germany are two examples of countries with a civil law system.
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  • They are based on patterns of behavior (or customs) that have come to be accepted as legal requirements or rules of conduct within a particular country.  
  • The laws of customary legal systems are usually unwritten and are often dispensed by elders, passed down through generations. As such, customary law research depends greatly on the use of secondary sources. 
  • Oftentimes, customary law practices can be found in mixed legal system jurisdictions, where they've combined with civil or common law.
Quick Primer on the World's Legal Systems

There are generally considered to be five legal systems in the world today: 

  • Civil law
  • Common law
  • Customary law
  • Religious law
  • Mixed legal systems.
  • While they often have statutes, common law systems rely more on precedent, judicial decisions that have already been made.  
  • Common law systems are adversarial, rather than investigatory, with the judge moderating between two opposing parties.  
  • The legal system in the United States is a common law system (with the exception of Louisiana, which has a mix of civil and common law).

These are the systems where the law emanates from texts or traditions within a given religious tradition.  

Many Islamic nations have legal systems based in whole or in part on the Quran.

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In the 12th century, Italian jurists rediscovered Justinian's compilation of Roman law. This started a new legal scholarship in Europe that flourished and evolved into the ius commune - a shared legal tradition that combined Roman and canon law into a common system of legal thought.


During the 17th and 18th century, the Dutch jurists created ways to incorporate the local customary law within a classical Roman framework. The Dutch system of law was exported to its colonies, where it was dominated by the Roman-Dutch tradition of the time.

Roman law - the basis for law codes of most countries

Roman law of ancient Rome has affected the development of law in most Western civilisation and parts of the East.

It is the foundation for law codes of most countries of continental Europe (civil law) and derivative systems elsewhere.

The Napoleonic Code

The 1804 Napoleonic Code influenced civil law codes across the globe. It was very influential in developing countries outside Europe, especially in the Middle East.

  • It replaced the fragmented laws of pre-revolutionary France.
  • It recognised the principles of civil liberty, equality before the law for men (not for women in the same sense), and the state's secular character.

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