In civil law systems, private international law is a branch of the internal legal system dealing with the determination of which state law is applicable to situations crossing over the borders of one particular state and involving a "foreign element" (élément d'extranéité), (collisions of law, conflict of laws). Lato sensu (at large) it also includes international civil procedure and international commercial arbitration (collisions of jurisdiction, conflict of jurisdictions), as well as citizenship law (which strictly speaking is part of public law).
There are two major streams of legal thought on the nature of conflict of laws. One group of researchers regard Conflict of Laws as a part of international law, claiming that its norms are uniform, universal and obligatory for all states. This stream of legal thought in Conflict of Laws is called "universalism". Other researchers maintain the view that each State creates its own unique norms of Conflict of Laws pursuing its own policy. This theory is called "particularism" in Conflict of Laws.
Private international law is divided on two major areas:
In common law systems, conflict of laws, firstly, is concerned with determining whether the proposed forum has jurisdiction to adjudicate and is the appropriate venue for dealing with the dispute, and, secondly, with determining which of the competing state's laws are to be applied to resolve the dispute. It also deals with the enforcement of foreign judgments.
Its three different names conflict of laws, private international law, and international private law are generally interchangeable, although none of them is wholly accurate or properly descriptive. The term conflict of laws is primarily used in jurisdictions of the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition (United States, England, Canada, Australia, etc.); private international law is used in France (droit international privé) as well as in Italy, the Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-countries and Greece; international private law is used in Germany and the other German-speaking countries (internationales Privatrecht)
Within local federal systems where inter-state legal conflicts require resolution, (such as in the United States), the term conflict of laws is preferred simply because such cases are not an international issue. Hence the term conflict of laws is a more general term for a legal process for resolving similar disputes, regardless whether the relevant legal systems are international or inter-state, though this term is also criticised as being misleading in that the object is the resolution of conflicts between competing systems rather than "conflict" itself. The term conflict of laws is usually used by common law countries, while for civil law countries the term private international law is more appropriate. The term private international law was coined by American lawyer and judge Joseph Story, but was abandoned subsequently by common law scholars and embraced by civil law lawyers.
More significant developments can be traced to Roman law. Roman civil law (jus civile) being inapplicable to non-citizens, special tribunals had jurisdiction to deal with multistate cases. The officers of these specialized tribunals were known as the praetor peregrini. The Praetor peregrini did not select a jurisdiction whose rules of law should apply. Instead, they "applied" the "jus gentium." The jus gentium was a flexible and loosely-defined body of law based on international norms. Thus the praetor peregrini essentially created new substantive law for each case. Today, this is called a "substantive" solution to the choice-of-law issue.
An early private international law was established in classical Islamic law and jurisprudence as a result of the vast Muslim conquests and maritime explorations during the early Middle Ages giving rise to various conflicts of laws. A will, for example, was "not enforced even if its provisions accorded with Islamic law if it violated the law of the testator." Islamic jurists also developed elaborate rules for private international law regarding issues such as contracts and property, family relations and child custody, legal procedure and jurisdiction, religious conversion, and the return of aliens to an enemy country from the Muslim world. The religious laws and courts of other religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, were also usually accommodated in classical Islamic law, as exemplified in Islamic Spain, Islamic India, and the Ottoman Empire.
The modern conflict of laws is generally considered to have begun in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages and in particular at trading cities such as Genoa, Piza and Venice. The need to adjudicate issues involving commercial transactions between traders belonging to different cities led to the development of the theory of statuta, whereby certain city laws would be considered as statuta personalia "following" the person whereby it may act, and other city laws would be considered as statuta realia, resulting in application of the law of the city where e.g. the res would be located (cf. lex rei sitae).
Maritime law was also a great driver of international legal rules; providing for the enforcement of contracts, the protection of shipwrecked sailors and property, and the maintaining of harbours.
The modern field of conflicts emerged in the United States during the 19th century with the publishing of Joseph Story's treatise on the Conflict of Laws in 1834. Story's work had a great influence on the subsequent development of the field in England such as those written by A.V. Dicey. Much of the English law then became the basis for conflict of laws for most commonwealth countries.
In those states with an underdeveloped set of Conflict rules, decisions on jurisdiction tend to be made on an ad hoc basis, with such choice of law rules as have been developed embedded into each subject area of private law and tending to favour the application of the lex fori or local law. In states with a more mature system, the set of Conflict rules stands apart from the local private civil law and adopts a more international point of view both in its terminology and concepts. For example, in the European Union, all major jurisdictional matters are regulated under the Brussels Regime, e.g. the rule of lis alibi pendens from Brussels 1 Regulation applies in the Member States and its interpretation is controlled by the European Court of Justice rather than by local courts. That and other elements of the Conflict rules are produced supranationally and implemented by treaty or convention. Because these rules are directly connected with aspects of sovereignty and the extraterritorial application of laws in the courts of the signatory states, they take on a flavour of public rather than private law because each state is compromising the usual expectations of their own citizens that they will have access to their local courts, and that local laws will apply in those local courts. Such aspects of public policy have direct constitutional significance whether applied in the European context or in federated nations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia where the courts have to contend not only with jurisdiction and law conflicts between the constituent states or territories, but also as between state and federal courts, and as between constituent states and relevant laws from other states outside the federation.
For example, suppose that Alexandre who has a French nationality and residence in Germany, corresponds with Bob who has American nationality, domicile in Arizona, and residence in Austria, over the internet. They agree to the joint purchase of land in Switzerland, currently owned by Heidi who is a Swiss national, but they never physically meet, executing initial contract documents by using fax machines, followed by a postal exchange of hard copies. Alexandre pays his share of the deposit but, before the transaction is completed, Bob admits that although he has capacity to buy land under his lex domicilii and the law of his residence, he is too young to own land under Swiss law. The rules to determine which courts would have jurisdiction and which laws would be applied to each aspect of the case are defined in each state's laws so, in theory, no matter which court in which country actually accepts the case, the outcome will be the same (albeit that the measure of damages might differ from country to country which is why forum shopping is such a problem). In reality, however, moves to harmonise the conflictual system have not reached the point where standardisation of outcome can be guaranteed.
In divorce cases, when a Court is attempting to distribute marital property, if the divorcing couple is local and the property is local, then the Court applies its domestic law lex fori. The work of the Judge, and the lawyers in the case becomes much more complicated if foreign elements are thrown into the mix, such as the place of marriage is different than the territory where divorce was filed, or the parties nationality and residence do not match. Or there is property in foreign jurisdictions, or the parties have changed residence several times during the marriage. These are just a few examples, and each time a spouse invokes the application of foreign law, the process of divorce slows down, as the parties are directed to brief the issue of conflict of laws, hire foreign attorneys to write legal opinions, and translations of the foreign law are required, at an extensive cost to both sides.
Different jurisdictions follow different sets of rules, as outlined below. Before embarking on a conflict of law analysis, the Court must determine whether a property agreement governs the relationship between the parties. The property agreement must satisfy all formalities required in the Country where enforcement is sought.
Whereas commercial agreements or prenuptial agreements generally do not require legal formalities to be observed, when married couples enter a property agreement, stringent requirements are imposed, including notarization, witnesses, special acknowledgment forms, and in some countries, it must be filed (or docketed) with a domestic Court, and the terms must be “so ordered” by a Judge. This is done in order to ensure that no undue influence or oppression has been exerted by one spouse against the other. Upon presenting a property agreement between spouses to a Court of divorce, that Court will generally assure itself of the following factors: signatures, legal formalities, intent, later intent, free will, no oppression, reasonableness and fairness, consideration, performance, reliance, later repudiation in writing or by conduct, and whatever else concepts of contractual bargaining apply in the context.
In the absence of a valid and enforceable agreement, here’s how the conflict of law rules work:
Note that Lex Fori also applies to all procedural relief (as opposed to substantive relief). Thus, issues such as the ability to grant pretrial relief, procedure and form, as well as statutes of limitations are classified as “procedure” and are always subject to domestic law where the divorce case is pending.
On the one hand, this notion is used to describe the situation where a local court applies a rule other than the Lex fori (local law).
On the other hand, it could mean that the rule is being applied to a factual situation that occurred beyond the territory of its state of origin. As an example of this situation, one can think of an American court applying British tort statutes and case law to a car accident that took place in London where both the driver and the victim are British citizens but the lawsuit was brought in before the American courts because the driver's insurer is American. One can then argue that since the factual situation is within the British territory, where an American judge applies the English Law, he does not give an extraterritorial application to the foreign rule. In fact, one can also argue that the American judge, had he applied American Law, would be doing so in an extraterritorial fashion.
Once the lex causae has been selected, it will be respected except when it appears to contravene an overriding mandatory rule of the lex fori. Each judge is the guardian of his own principles of ordre public (public order) and the parties cannot, by their own act, oust the fundamental principles of the local municipal law which generally underpin areas such as labour law, insurance, competition regulation, agency rules, embargoes, import-export regulations, and securities exchange regulations. Furthermore, the lex fori will prevail in cases where an application of the lex causae would otherwise result in a fundamentally immoral outcome, or give extraterritorial effect to confiscatory or other territorially limited laws.
In some countries, there is occasional evidence of parochialism when courts have determined that if the foreign law cannot be proved to a "satisfactory standard", then local law may be applied. In the United Kingdom, in the absence of evidence being led, the foreign law is presumed to be the same as the lex fori. Similarly, judges might assume in default of express evidence to the contrary that the place where the cause of action arose would provide certain basic protections, e.g. that the foreign court would provide a remedy to someone who was injured due to the negligence of another. Finally, some American courts have held that local law will be applied if the injury occurred in an "uncivilized place that has no law or legal system.
If the case has been submitted to arbitration rather than a national court, say because of a forum selection clause, an arbitrator may decide not to apply local mandatory policies in the face of a choice of law by the parties if this would defeat their commercial objectives. However, the arbitral award may be challenged in the country where it was made or where enforcement is sought by one of the parties on the ground that the relevant ordre public should have been applied. If the lex loci arbitri has been ignored, but there was no real and substantial connection between the place of arbitration and the agreement made by the parties, a court in which enforcement is sought may well accept the tribunal's decision. But if the appeal is to the courts in the state where the arbitration was held, the judge cannot ignore the mandatory provisions of the lex fori.