08 April 2012 Written by  Tesfaye Abate

Major Legal Systems in the World

Laws are categorized into legal systems. What are the major legal systems? Under this part, we will be discussing the criterion employed to distinguish between the common and civil law legal systems, first. In so doing we will define the concept of legal system itself. Further, we will consider the general characteristics of common law and civil law legal systems respectively.


How could one classify laws? What points should be employed as criteria to categorize laws?

Legal system is defined by Hart, as that it includes a fundamental rule for the identification of the other rules of system [Paton; 1967: 76].

[Rene David and John E. C. Brierley, Major Legal Systems in the World today An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Law, Pp. 19-20]

The grouping of laws into families, thereby establishing a limited number of types, simplifies the presentation and facilitates an understanding of the world’s contemporary laws. There is no, however, agreement as to which element should be considered in setting up these groups and, therefore, what different families should be recognized. Some writers base their classification on the law’s conceptual structure of on the theory of sources of the law; others are of the view that these are technical differences of secondary importance, and emphasize as a more significant criterion other the social objectives to be achieved with the help of the legal system or the place of law itself within the social order.

From the technical standpoint, it is advisable to ask whether someone educated in the study and practice of one law will then be capable, without much difficulty, of handling another. If not, it may be concluded that the two laws do not belong to the same family; this may be so because of differences in the vocabularies of the two laws (they do not express the same concepts), because the hierarchy of sources and the methods of each law differ to a considerable degree. This first criterion, no matter how essential, is nevertheless insufficient, and it should be complemented by the second consideration. Two laws cannot be considered as belonging to the same family, even though they employ the same concepts and techniques, if they are founded on opposed philosophical, political or economic principles, and if they seek to achieve two entirely different types of society. The two criteria must be used cumulatively, not separately.


[Rene David and John E. C. Brierley, Major Legal Systems in the World Today An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Law, Pp. 23-4]

A first family of law is that of the Common law, including the law of England and those laws modelled on English law. The Common law, altogether different in its characteristics from the Romano-Germanic family, was formed primarily by judges who has to resolve individual disputes. Today it still bears striking traces of its origins. The common law legal rule is one, which seeks to provide the solution to a trial rather than to formulate a general rule of conduct for the future. It is, then much less abstract than the characteristic legal rule of the Romano-Germanic family. Matters relating to the administration of justice, procedure, evidence and execution of judicial decisions have, for common law lawyers, an importance equal, or even superior, to substantive rules of law because historically their immediate preoccupation has been to re-establish peace rather than articulate a moral basis for the social order. United States of America and Canada belong to this legal system.


The meaning of the words “civil law” has not been the same in all historical periods in the framework of early and classical Roman law, jus civile was the law governing the relations of Roman citizens. In that regard, it was contrasted the jus gentium and the jus naturale. From a different point of view, the jus civil was contrasted to the jus honorarium and to the jus publicum. In the middle ages and up to the era or “reception” the term civil law referred mostly to the Justinian legislation and the accumulated doctrine of the commentators; it was contrasted to the cannon law.

In modern times the term civil law refers to those legal systems which, especially in their methodology and terminology, were shaped decisively by the Roman law scholars from middle ages to the nineteenth century.  Germany, French, and Italy are the forerunners of civil law legal system.


[Taken from Comparative Legal Systems- MSN Encarta, 12/5/2006]The best way to explain the main elements of the civil and the common law families and to compare and contrast the two is to subdivide them further into the following features

1) Beginnings The common law was conceived in 1066 and born of union between older Saxon law and the custom of the Norman conquerors. The civil law was older than the common law is now.

2) Nurture The common law was nurtured in London law courts by judges and barristers. The older Roman Law was developed to an important extent by jurists, who were not practising lawyers but public-minded citizens. It was they who strive to expound, explain, and adapt the ancient and sporadic legislation and the edicts of the officials; the high point of their contribution occurred in the decades around AD 200.

3) Spread The common law spread only by conquest and colonization: no one ever accepted it freely. The Roman part of the civil law, preserved in the collection of Justinian of AD 533, was rediscovered in the 11th century, embraced by the university law schools of northern Italy, and spread from them throughout continental Europe. From there like the common law it went to the New World and the parts of Africa by colonization. In addition, however, especially in the 19th century, the French and then the German versions were freely selected as models by countries in the Middle and Far East.

4) Language Although originally written in Latin and spoken in Norman French, the language of the common law today is virtually exclusively English. In most civil law systems the terminology is likely to be wholly in the local language.

5) Makers The main creators of the common law are the judiciary: that is to say the matrix, the basic operation system, is laid down by case law. While deciding cases, judges lay down the law. In civil-law systems, at least until very recently, judges played the comparatively minor role of settling the dispute in front of them. They did not make the rules of the system, and their decisions are not cited in later cases.

6) Legislation The modern countries of both systems of laws produce large amounts of legislation. However, that of the common-law countries tends to be piecemeal. Save for the constitution, and fiscal matters, basic principles are not enacted (except as codifications of existing case law in such statutes as the partnership Act). The typical statute merely adjusts some detail of the rules laid down by the courts. In complete contrast, modern civil-law systems tend to think of themselves as codified. The word code in this context means that a whole area of law so laid down in one legislative document, with the aim of providing a closed, coherent, and consistent set of propositions that, if used in good faith, can be applied to solve any dispute in that area. The most obvious example is that of a criminal code.

7) Precedent in civil law legal system, decisions in individual cases and the opinions handed down by courts in particular lawsuits never have the force of law; they cannot be extended to other cases or to other people (Article 2). This approach is fortified by the historical fact that civil-law judges did not see their job as creating law, the professional fact that they are career civil servants, and the political fact that it is thought more democratic to entrust lawmaking to the elected representative of the people.

Common-law perceptions are quite different. Historically, judges made the law. Furthermore, to this day the legislator in common-law countries does not lay down the basic rules of the legal system. However, they are needed, and so a notion of precedent comes into being. For instance, the English Parliament has never defined murder, has never laid down that contracts must be kept, or that a person must pay compensation for damage unlawfully caused to others, since such definitions and rules are necessary, courts and lawyers can find them only in earlier case law. As it would be absurd and unfair if judges could remake the basic law of murder or of contract in any case before them, a rule of precedent binds them to the law as declared by higher courts in their jurisdiction. The doctrine of precedent is an operational rule of a common-law system.

8) Fact: The judges who built up the common law system were few in number, and left the hard work of fact-finding to laypeople: that is, the jury. Originally made up of neighbours who might be thought to know the background, and then of disinterested strangers empowered to hear the evidence and decide. Nowadays only the United States makes much use of the jury for non- criminal matters (as required by the seventh Amendment).

The civil-law systems, by contrast, have always left the task of finding the facts to a professional judge. This has a number of consequences. First, there were always far more judges in civil-than in common-law countries. Second, the judge could be given more control from the outset of the dispute in deciding which witnesses to call and which questions to put to them. Third, the procedure could be more sporadic, spread over a number of sessions, and reduced to writing. Fourth, the rules of evidence can be flexible, since a professional judge is presumed capable of accurately assessing testimony. Finally, it is easier for a higher court to correct or reverse a decision.

9) Structure: One result of the above features is that in common-law countries the legal system is not organized in a coherent and clear structure. Its development tends to be incremental and pragmatic, and it is not easy for the civil lawyer to approach. Civil lawyers lay great emphasis on system and structure. Furthermore, they tend to follow similar patterns in their organization of legal topics, and once these are understood it is relatively simple to locate the law on any given topic.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 13:05
More in this category: FUNCTIONS OF LAW »