legal systems

Legal systems of the world

The three major legal systems of the world today consist of civil law, common law and religious law. However, each country (see State law) often develops variations on each system or incorporates many other features into the system.

Civil law

Civil law is the most widespread system of law in the world. It is also sometimes known as Continental European law. The central source of law that is recognised as authoritative are codifications in a constitution or statute passed by legislature, to amend a code. Civil law systems mainly derive from the Roman Empire, and more particularly, the Corpus Juris Civilis issued by the Emperor Justinian ca. 529AD. This was an extensive reform of the law in the Byzantine Empire, bringing it together into codified documents. Civil law was also partly influenced by religious laws such as Canon law and Islamic law. Civil law today, in theory, is interpreted rather than developed or made by judges. Only legislative enactments (rather than judicial precedents) are considered legally binding. However, in reality courts do pay attention to previous decisions, especially from higher courts.

Scholars of comparative law and economists promoting the legal origins theory usually subdivide civil law into four distinct groups:

A comprehensive list of countries that base their legal system on a codified civil law follows:

Country Description
Albania The Civil Code of the Republic of Albania, 1991 really
Angola Based on Portuguese civil law
Argentina The Spanish legal tradition had a great influence on the Civil Code of Argentina, basically a work of the Argentine jurist Dalmacio Vélez Sársfield, who dedicated five years of his life on this task. The Civil Code came into effect on January 1, 1871. Beyond the influence of the Spanish legal tradition, the Argentinian Civil Code was also inspired by the Draft of the Brazilian Civil Code, the Draft of the Spanish Civil Code of 1851, the Napoleonic code and the Chilean Civil Code. The sources of this Civil Code also include various theoretical legal works, mainly of the great French jurists of the 19th century. It was the first Civil Law that consciously adopted as its cornerstone the distinction between i. rights from obligations and ii. real property rights, thus distancing itself from the French model. The Argentinian Civil Code was also in effect in Paraguay, as per a Paraguayan law of 1880, until the new Civil Code went in force in 1987.

During the second half of the 20th century, the German legal theory became increasingly influential in Argentina.

Andorra Courts apply the customary laws of Andorra, supplemented with Roman law and customary Catalan law.
Armenia Civil Code of the Republic of Armenia
Aruba Based on Dutch civil law
Austria The Allgemeines bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (ABGB) of 1811
Belgium Influenced by the Napoleonic Code
Bolivia Influenced by the Napoleonic Code
Bosnia and Herzegovina Civil Law system influenced mostly by Germanic and Austro-Hungarian law systems
Brazil Derived from the Portuguese civil law
Bulgaria Civil Law system influenced by Germanic and Roman law systems
Burkina Faso
People's Republic of China based on civil law system; derived from Soviet and continental civil code legal principles.
Republic of the Congo
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Cote d'Ivoire
Cape Verde Based on Portuguese civil law
Central African Republic
Chile The Spanish legal tradition exercised an especially great influence on the civil code of Chile. On its turn, the Chilean civil code influenced to a large degree the drafting of the civil codes of other Latin-American states. For instance, the codes of Ecuador (1861) and Colombia (1873) constituted faithful reproductions of the Chilean code, but for very few exceptions. The compiler of the Civil Code of Chile, Andrés Bello, worked for its completion for almost 30 years, using elements, of the Spanish law on the one hand, and of other Western laws, especially of the French one, on the other. Indeed, it is noted that he consulted and used all of the codes that had been issued till then, starting from the era of Justinian. The Civil Code came into effect on January 1, 1857. Its technique is regarded as perfect; it is distinguished for the clarity, logic and cohesiveness of its provisions. As mentioned by Arminjon, Nolde, and Wolff ('Traite de droit comparé', Paris, 1950-1952) Andrés Bello may be regarded as one of the great legislators of mankind. The influence of the Napoleonic code is great; it is observed however that e.g. in many provisions of property law, the solutions of the French code civil were put aside in favor of pure Roman law.
Colombia Civil code introduced in 1873. Nearly faithful reproduction of the Chilean civil code
Costa Rica First Civil Code (a part of the General Code or Carrillo Code) came into effect in 1841; its text was inspired by the South Peruvian Civil Code of Marshal Andres de Santa Cruz. The present Civil Code is into effect since January 1, 1888, and reveals the influenced by the Napoleonic Code and the Spanish Civil Code of 1889 (from its 1851 draft version).
Croatia Kazneni zakon RH- Great influence of Austro- Hungarian law system
Cuba Influenced by Spanish and American law with large elements of Communist legal theory.
Czech Republic
Denmark Scandinavian-German civil law
Dominican Republic Based by the Napoleonic Code
Ecuador Civil code introduced in 1861. Nearly faithful reproduction of the Chilean civil code
El Salvador
France Based on the Napoleonic code (code civil of 1804)
Equatorial Guinea
Germany The Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch of 1900 ("BGB"). The BGB is influenced both by Roman and German law traditions.
Greece The Greek civil code of 1946, highly influenced by the German civil code of 1900 (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch); the Greek civil code replaced the Byzantine-Roman civil law in effect in Greece since its independence (Νομική Διάταξη της Ανατολικής Χέρσου Ελλάδος, Legal Provision of Eastern Mainland Greece, November 1821: 'Οι Κοινωνικοί Νόμοι των Αειμνήστων Χριστιανών Αυτοκρατόρων της Ελλάδος μόνοι ισχύουσι κατά το παρόν εις την Ανατολικήν Χέρσον Ελλάδα', 'The Social [i.e. Civil] Laws of the Dear Departed Christian Emperors of Greece [referring to the Byzantine Emperors] alone are in effect at present in Eastern Mainland Greece')
Guatemala Guatemala has had three Civil Codes: the first one from 1877, a new one introduced in 1933, and the one currently in force, which was passed in 1963. This Civil Code has suffered some reforms throughout the years, as well as a few derogations relating to areas which have subsequently been regulated by newer laws, such as the Code of Commerce and the Law of the National Registry of Persons. In general, it follows the tradition of the roman-French system of civil codification. Regarding the theory of 'sources of law' in the Guatemalan legal system, the 'Ley del Organismo Judicial' recognizes 'the law' as the main legal source (in the sense of legislative texts), although it also establishes 'jurisprudence' as a complementary source. Although jurisprudence technically refers to judicial decisions in general, in practice it tends to be confused and identified with the concept of 'legal doctrine', which is a qualified series of identical resolutions in similar cases pronounced by higher courts (the Constitutional Court acting as a 'Tribunal de Amparo', and the Supreme Court acting as a 'Tribunal de Casación') whose theses become binding for lower courts.
Haiti Influenced by the Napoleonic Code
Iceland Based on Germanic traditional laws and influenced by Medieval Norwegian and Danish laws.
Italy Based on codified Roman law, with elements of the Napoleonic civil code; civil code of 1942 replaced the original one of 1865
Japan Modeled after European (primarily German) civil law system. Japanese civil code of 1895.
Latvia Largely influenced by Germany, medium influences from Russian and Soviet law.
Lebanon Modeled after French civil law
Lithuania Modeled after Dutch civil law
Luxembourg Influenced by the Napoleonic Code
Macau Based on the Portuguese strand of the continental tradition, itself much influenced by Germany; also influenced by the law of the PRC
Mexico "The origins of Mexico's legal system are both ancient and classical, based on the Greek, Roman and French legal systems, and the Mexican system shares more in common with other legal systems throughout the world (especially those in Latin America and most of continental Europe)..." From: Jaime B. Berger Stender Attorney at Law author, Tijuana, B.C., Mexico
Netherlands Influenced by the Napoleonic Code
Norway Scandinavian-German civil law. King Magnus VI the Lawmender unified the regional laws into a single code of law for the whole kingdom in 1274. This was replaced by Christian V's Norwegian Code of 1687.
Paraguay The Paraguayan Civil Code in force since 1987 is largely influenced by the Napoleonic Code and the Argentinian Code
Poland The Polish Civil Code in force since 1965
Portugal Influenced by the Napoleonic Code and later by the German Civil Law
Republic of China (Taiwan)
Romania Based on the Napoleonic Code
Slovenia A Civil Law system influenced mostly by Germanic and Austro-Hungarian law systems
Spain Influenced by the Napoleonic Code
Sweden Scandinavian-German civil law. Like all Scandinavian legal systems, it is distinguished by its traditional character and for the fact that it did not adopt elements of Roman law. It is indeed worth mentioning that it assimilated very few elements of foreign laws whatsoever. It is also interesting that the Napoleonic Code had no influence in codification of law in Scandinavia. The historical basis of the law of Sweden, just as for all Nordic countries, is Old German law. Codification of the law started in Sweden during the 18th century, preceding the codifications of most other European countries. However, neither Sweden, nor any other Nordic state created a civil code of the kind of the Code Civil or the BGB.
Switzerland The Zivilgesetzbuch of 1908 and 1912 (obligations; fifth book)
Turkey Modeled after the Swiss civil law (Zivilgesetzbuch) of 1907; this has been a conscious choice of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, in order to abolish the Islamic law (Sharia), aiming at westernizing the country
Ukraine Civil Code of Ukraine of 2004
Vatican City based on principles of Code of Canon Law
Vietnam Communist legal theory and French civil law

Common law

Common law and equity are systems of law whose sources are the decisions in cases by judges. Alongside, every system will have a legislature that passes new laws and statutes, however these do not amend a collected and codified body of law. Common law developed in England, influenced by the Norman conquest of England which introduced legal concepts from Norman law and Islamic law. Common law was later inherited by the Commonwealth of Nations, and almost every former colony of the British Empire (Malta being an exception). The doctrine of stare decisis or precedent by courts is the major difference to codified civil law systems.

Common law is currently in practice in Ireland, most of the United Kingdom (England and Wales and Northern Ireland), Australia, India, South Africa, Canada (excluding Quebec), Hong Kong and the United States (excluding Louisiana) and many more places. In addition to these countries, several others have adapted the common law system into a mixed system. For example, Pakistan and Nigeria operate largely on a common law system, but incorporate religious law.

In the European Union the Court of Justice takes an approach mixing civil law (based on the treaties) with an attachment to the importance of case law. One of the most fundamental documents to shape common law is Magna Carta which placed limits on the power of the English Kings. It served as a kind of medieval bill of rights for the aristocracy and the judiciary who developed the law.

Country Description
American Samoa
Antigua and Barbuda based on English common law
Australia based on English common law
Bahamas based on English common law
Barbados based on English common law
Belize based on English common law
British Virgin Islands based on English common law
Canada based on English common law, except in Quebec, where civil law system based on French law prevails
Dominica based on English common law
England and Wales
primarily common law, with early Roman and some modern continental influences
Fiji based on English common law
Gibraltar based on English common law
Myanmar based on English common law
Grenada based on English common law
Hong Kong principally based on English common law
India based on English common law
Ireland based on Irish law before 1922, which was itself based on English common law
Jamaica based on English common law
Kiribati based on English common law
Marshall Islands based on U.S. Law
Nauru based on English common law
New Zealand based on English common law
Northern Ireland
based on Irish law before 1921, which was itself based on English common law
Palau based on U.S. Law
Saint Kitts and Nevis based on English common law
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines based on English common law
Singapore based on English common law
Tonga based on English common law
Trinidad and Tobago based on English common law
Tuvalu based on English common law
Uganda based on English common law
United States Federal court system based on English common law
Unlike the rest of the states in the United States, the state legal system of the State of Louisiana (USA) is based upon Napoleonic code(see below)

Religious law

Religious law refers to the notion of a religious system or document being used as a legal source, though the methodology used varies. For example, the use of Jewish Halakha for public law has a static and unalterable quality, precluding amendment through legislative acts of government or development through judicial precedent; Christian Canon law is more similar to civil law in its use of civil codes; and Islamic Sharia law (and Fiqh jurisprudence) is based on legal precedent and reasoning by analogy (Qiyas), and is thus considered a precursor to common law.

The main kinds of religious law are Sharia in Islam, Halakha in Judaism, and Canon law in some Christian groups. In some cases these are intended purely as individual moral guidance, whereas in other cases they are intended and may be used as the basis for a country's legal system. The latter was particularly common during the Middle Ages.

The Islamic legal system of Sharia (Islamic law) and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is the most widely used religious law, and one of the three most common legal systems in the world alongside common law and civil law. Only a fraction of Sharia law is based on the Qur'an and Sunnah, while the majority of its rulings are based on the Ulema (jurists) who used the methods of Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (analogical deduction), Ijtihad (reason) and Urf (common practice) to derive Fatwā (legal opinions). An Ulema was required to qualify for an Ijazah (legal doctorate) at a Madrasah (law school) before they could isse Fatwā. During the Islamic Golden Age, classical Islamic law had a fairly significant influence on the development of common law, and also influenced the development of several civil law institutions.

The Halakha is followed by orthodox and conservative Jews in both ecclesiastical and civil relations. No country is fully governed by Halakha, but two Jewish people may decide, because of personal belief, to have a dispute heard by a Jewish court, and be bound by its rulings. Sharia Law governs a number of Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, though most countries use Sharia Law only as a supplement to national law. It can relate to all aspects of civil law, including property rights, contracts or public law.

Canon law also differs from other religious laws, properly speaking, because it is not found in revelation. Instead, it is seen as human law inspired by the word of God and applying the demands of that revelation to the actual situation of the church. Canon law regulates the internal ordering of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. Canon law is amended and adapted by the legislative authority of the church, such as councils of bishops, single bishops for their respective sees, the Pope for the entire Catholic Church, and the British Parliament for the Church of England.

Country Description
Afghanistan Islamic law
Bangladesh formerly based on English common law
Iran Islamic law
Jordan mix of Islamic law and French Civil Codes
Libya Islamic law
Oman Sharia and tribal custom laws
Pakistan formerly based on English common law
Saudi Arabia
Sudan mix of English common law and Islamic law
The Gambia English common law, Islamic law and customary law
Western Sahara
Yemen Islamic law

Pluralistic systems

Civil law and common law

Country Description
Botswana South African law (a mixed system) transferred uno acto through a proclamation of reception
Cyprus Based on English common law (Cyprus was a British colony 1878-1960), with admixtures of French and Greek civil and public law, Italian civil law, Indian contract law, Greek Orthodox canon law, Muslim religious law, and Ottoman civil law.
Israel Originally (1948) based on English common law; in the process, influenced by German civil law—for instance, between 1962 and 1981, the Knesset issued twenty (20) wide-ranging laws, which were clearly influenced by civil law, and were in the form of codes. Religious law plays a role, especially in matters of personal status and family law, and judicial and legislative decisions take into account Jewish law (halakhah) on occasion.
Lesotho South African law (a mixed system) transferred uno acto through a proclamation of reception
Based on the French Napoleonic Code; the modern legal system of the state of Louisiana has its origin in the Louisiana Purchase (i.e. the sale of Louisiana—not coterminous with the present eponymous state—by Napoleon to the United States of America in 1803), while federal laws (based on common law) are in effect in Louisiana as well.
Malta Initially based on Roman Law and eventually progressed to the Code de Rohan, Code Napoleon with influences from Italian Civil Law. English common law however is also a source of Maltese Law, most notably in Public Law
Namibia South African law (a mixed system) transferred uno acto through a proclamation of reception
Philippines Based on Spanish law; influenced by U.S. common law after 1898 Spanish and Philippine-American Wars.
Puerto Rico
Based on Spanish law; influenced by U.S. common law after 1898 (victory of the U.S. over Spain in the Spanish-American war of 1898 and cession of Puerto Rico to the U.S.)
After the defeat of the French in the battle at the Plains of Abraham, the British allowed them to keep their language (French), their religion (Roman Catholicism), and their legal system (civil law). However, as Quebec is part of the Canadian Confederation, English-based laws applied at the federal level are in effect in Quebec also.
Saint Lucia
based on Roman and continental law, with common law elements dating back to the High Middle Ages
South Africa An amalgam of English common law and Roman-Dutch civil law as well as Customary Law.
Sri Lanka An amalgam of English common law, Roman-Dutch civil law and Customary Law
Swaziland South African law (a mixed system) transferred uno acto through a proclamation of reception
Zimbabwe South African law (a mixed system) transferred uno acto through a proclamation of reception

Civil law and religious law

Country Description
Egypt Based on Islamic law and French civil law system
Indonesia Based on civil law of Holland and adat (cultural law of Indonesia)
Morocco Based on Islamic law and French and Spanish civil law system
Syria Based on Islamic law and French civil law system

Common law and religious law

Country Description
India based on English common law, separate personal law codes apply to Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, but criminal penal law is uniform
Malaysia based on English common law, personal law based on sharia law applies to Muslims
Pakistan based on English Common Law, some Islamic Law applications in inheritance. Tribal Law in FATA

Systems by geography

Despite the usefulness of different classifications, every legal system has its own individual identity. Below are groups of legal systems, categorised by their geography. Click the "show" buttons on the right for the lists of countries.

See also

External links


  • Moustaira Elina N., Comparative Law: University Courses (in Greek), Ant. N. Sakkoulas Publishers, Athens, 2004, ISBN 960-15-1267-5
  • Moustaira Elina N., Milestones in the Course of Comparative Law: Thesis and Antithesis (in Greek), Ant. N. Sakkoulas Publishers, Athens, 2003, ISBN 960-15-1097-4

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