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How Do Legal Systems Differ From One Country to Another?

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While shared histories and cultural similarities have left many countries with legal systems that are quite similar to one another, there are hundreds of unique systems of law in use throughout the world.

In many places, legal systems evolve at two different paces – the first, in response to gradual changes to society and national attitudes, and the second, at a rapid speed if a major national or political event – for example, a political revolution or conflict – happens to occur.

Unique geographical, historical, and political events can also have a huge effect on the legal system used by a country. Since the beginning of civilisation, legal systems have been essential for providing the rules of government, solving disputes, limiting social instability, and maintain ethical standards of fairness and justice.

A simple definition of legal systems could be “the laws that govern a certain country and the way and standard with which they are used.” A more advanced description is necessary, however, to understand the true complexity and value of legal systems.

In almost all cases, legal systems in every country involve five key features that both establish and limit their power:

  • A national constitution, whether written or oral.

  • Legislation, laws, and statutes that are prepared and authorised by a governing body, whether it takes the form of a parliament or a Senate.

  • Subordinate laws, sometimes known as bylaws, prepared and authorised by a network of bodies that are granted powers by the primary legislation.

  • Traditions, customs, and established behaviours practiced by the courts to create a consistent legal environment.

  • A Civil, Common, or other code of laws that forms the primary source of principles and legal practices. In some legal systems, this may be based on a religious system.

Of these features, the final one – the country’s code of laws – that does the most to define the legal system and influence the way it operates.

Legal Systems Built on Civil Law

The most prevalent form of legal system in the world is built on Civil Law. Like many cornerstones of the legal system, particularly in Western countries, systems built on Civil Law can trace their origins back to the 6th century Roman Justinian code of law.

The Roman Justinian code of laws formed the primary law curriculum in medieval Europe’s universities. This factor resulted in its second popular name – Continental European Law.

Civil Law is based around a clear series of codified documents. In the example given here, these documents were the Roman Justinian documents as well as an additional range of documents from the medieval Canon Law.

In different settings, however, Civil Law became based on different documents. After the French Revolution resulted in the institution of secular and republican values, a new set of documents known as the Napoleonic Code of Civil Law was used. This is now the basis of many countries’ legal systems, including former French colonies.

The dominance of Napoleonic France in 19th century Europe resulted in this form of Civil Law being established in countries such as Italy, Romania, Spain, and others. As Spain dominated South America during the 19th century, many South American legal systems such as those Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay are based on the 1804 French Civil Code.

The influence of Belgium also exported this legal system to the African Congo. At the same time, however, a different Civil Law system was being created in Eastern and Central Europe, outside the control of Napoleonic France.

The German Civil Law System, which was based on the Roman System, which had been re-codified in 1811 and 1900, was known as the Allegemanes Burgerliches Gesetzbuch. The German system became the template for the laws of many other European countries, including Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Portugal, and Greece.

Many countries located far from Europe, such as Japan, Korea, and China used the Allegemanes Burgerliches Gesetzbuch as the basis of their own legal systems. This system was also used in Russia during the design of its own legal system.

In Scandinavia, countries adopted the written Civil Laws of Rome but left out much of the Roman influence. Instead, they used Norse and Teutonic principles to create a legal system that better reflected their values. Both Finland and Sweden had unique Civil Codes by 1734, while Denmark and Norway’s Civil Codes date back to 1683.

Since so many countries use a Civil Law system, it is easy to identify common traits despite the numerous differences of each country’s own legal code. Civil systems are dependent on legislative statutes as the primary source of law, and the influence of the judiciary is generally only passive and technical.

In these systems, judges are heavily involved in investigation and fact-finding, and the adversarial trial system and precedent – both of which are important elements of other legal systems – are of limited importance.

Civil Law is principally based around working from the statutory texts, which makes it a consistent type of legal system in which clarity is immense. Because of this, it’s a very popular legal system that is used by many countries.

Despite the clarity and consistency of Civil Law, not all countries use it. Let’s look at the countries that use a different type of legal system – Common Law.

Legal Systems Built on Common Law

Common Law systems are, in many ways, the opposite of Civil Law. Unlike Civil Law systems, which rely on codified documents, Common Law is based on statutes and writs and relies heavily on legal precedent.

Because of this, the judiciary plays a far greater role in Common Law systems than in Civil Law systems, as their judgements are those that set the precedents. Because of this, Common Law systems are more reliant on court trials and case law.

Common Law evolved from an English legal system that came into place following the Normal conquest. This system was built around a combination of Roman legal principles, existing Anglo-Saxon laws, royal writs and orders from after 1066, and the new Norman French laws.

One of the best examples of early Common Law is Magna Carta, of 2015, which is an important piece of law that establishes the right of an individual to trial by jury. The language of law played a major role in early Common Law systems, as the laws were written in Latin and spoken in Norman French during the Middle Ages.

After the 18th century, the laws became English and formed the basis of the English Common Law, which forms the backbone of the legal systems in all English speaking countries. These are mainly the countries colonised by the British Empire, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

Despite being independent of the British Empire, many of these countries maintain a legal system that’s built around English Common Law. Over time, the legal systems of these countries have evolved to suit local needs, but remain built on the British Common Law system.

While Civil Law and Common Law form the basis of legal systems in most European and English-speaking countries, as well as East Asian, Latin American, and African countries, not all countries use Common or Civil Law.

Legal Systems Built on Religious Laws

Many countries do not have secular legal systems, and instead depend on religious laws for her legal system. Countries that follow a legal system built on religious law view their laws as coming from a deity, often in the form of prophets.

These laws are typically eternal and immutable, making them far resistant to social changes and other factors that can lead to laws evolving in countries that use a Civil or Common Law system.

Legal systems built on religious laws are most common in Islamic countries, which vary in their use of purely religious law. Some Islamic countries use a system that is made up of both secular and religious laws, or operate distinct religious and secular legal systems.

The religious legal system, for example, may dictate the rules of marriage and family relationships, including divorce and parenting. The secular legal system may govern commerce and public legal issues. This is the case in Pakistan, in which the country’s 1935 Constitution is based on English Common Law, yet post-independence law is made up of both English Common Law and Sharia Law.

What is the future of the different legal systems?

The legal systems of all countries, whether English speaking and Western or based on ancient religious laws, are determined by a combination of history, culture, and politics.

Since no culture is set in stone, no country’s legal system is incapable of adapting to changes in political or cultural circumstances, or trends that affect the existing legal system and require change.

As technology allows the world to become increasingly more global, an interesting question is emerging regarding the nature of dispute resolution in the future. Will disputes be settled in a Civil Law system or a Common Law system? Currently, the European Union and the United Nations are working towards an international legal system that bridges the gap between nations for international dispute resolution.

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