A body of rules that delineate private rights and remedies, and govern disputes between individuals in such areas as contracts, property, and Family Law; distinct from criminal or public law. Civil law systems, which trace their roots to ancient Rome, are governed by doctrines developed and compiled by legal scholars. Legislators and administrators in civil law countries use these doctrines to fashion a code by which all legal controversies are decided.
The civil law system is derived from the Roman Corpus Juris Civilus of Emperor Justinian I; it differs from a common-law system, which relies on prior decisions to determine the outcome of a lawsuit. Most European and South American countries have a civil law system. England and most of the countries it dominated or colonized, including Canada and the United States, have a common-law system. However, within these countries, Louisiana, Quebec, and Puerto Rico exhibit the influence of French and Spanish settlers in their use of civil law systems.
In the United States, the term civil law has two meanings. One meaning of civil law refers to a legal system prevalent in Europe that is based on written codes. Civil law in this sense is contrasted with the common-law system used in England and most of the United States, which relies on prior case law to resolve disputes rather than written codes. The second meaning of civil law refers to the body of laws governing disputes between individuals, as opposed to those governing offenses that are public and relate to the government—that is, civil law as opposed to Criminal Law.
In France, the civil law is set forth in the comprehensive French Civil Code of 1804, also known as the Code Napoléon. France exported this legal system to the New World when it settled Louisiana in 1712. When the French ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762, the new Spanish governor replaced French civil law with Spanish civil law. France regained control of the territory in 1803 and the United States purchased it a mere 20 days later. During that brief period of French rule, the French prefect abolished all Spanish courts but did not reintroduce French law. Hence, the new U.S. governor of Louisiana, William Claiborne, took control of a territory that lacked a legal system.
Determined to Americanize Louisiana, Claiborne attempted to impose Common Law but met fierce resistance from Louisianans who had grown accustomed to their mixture of French and Spanish laws and culture. Realizing that he would not be able to mandate a common law system, he directed the state's legislature to draft a civil code based on existing law. Louisiana's first civil code, enacted in 1808, drew heavily from the Code Napoléon and was even written in French. It was replaced in 1825 by a more comprehensive and detailed code. Finally, the Louisiana Civil Code, enacted in 1870 and still largely in force, clarifies and simplifies the earlier laws. The 1870 code is written in English, signaling a shift toward a partial Americanization of Louisiana's legal culture. To this day, Louisiana enjoys the distinction of being the only state in the United States to have a civil law system rather than a common-law system.
The first article of the Louisiana Civil Code reads: "The sources of law are legislation and custom" (LA C.C. Art. 1). This means that judges in Louisiana are obligated to look first to written laws for guidance in reaching their decisions. If no statute directly governs the dispute, judges may base their decisions on established custom. Article 3 defines custom as a "practice repeated for a long time and generally accepted as having acquired the force of law." However, Article 3 makes it clear that custom may not abrogate or conflict with legislation. Hence, Louisiana judges do not make law with their decisions; rather, the code charges them with interpreting, as closely as possible, what has been written and passed by the legislature or long established by custom.
Louisiana judges, unlike their common-law counterparts, are not bound by judicial precedent. Common-law judges adhere to the doctrine of Stare Decisis, which mandates that the outcome of a lawsuit be governed by previous decisions in similar cases. Louisiana's civil code does not recognize the binding force of precedent. However, under the civil law doctrine of jurisprudence constante, or settled Jurisprudence, judges are expected to follow a series of decisions that agree on the interpretation of a code provision.
Although Louisiana is generally called a civil law state, its code is imbued with some common-law features, making it a hybrid of the two traditions. The state's constitution, administrative and criminal law, civil and Criminal Procedure, and RULES OF EVIDENCE all contain elements derived from common-law principles. As a result, Louisiana judges operate under administrative rules that differ from those found in other civil law jurisdictions. For example, whereas European judges actively elicit the facts in a controversy and seldom use a jury, Louisiana judges operate more like their common-law colleagues, assuming the role of neutral and passive fact finder or arbiter, and leaving the final decision to a jury. Oral argument is generally absent in a pure civil law proceeding, whereas Louisiana's procedural and evidentiary rules allow oral presentations, resulting in trials that are closer to those found in a common-law court. Finally, European courts allow almost unlimited discovery by the accused in a lawsuit, whereas Louisiana's procedural and evidentiary rules place certain restrictions on such discovery.
Civil law systems differ from common-law systems in another important way: in a common-law jurisdiction, appellate courts, in most instances, may review only findings of law. However, civil law appellate courts may review findings of fact as well as findings of law. This allows a Louisiana appellate court to declare a jury's decision erroneous, impose its own findings of fact, and possibly even reduce a damage award. This is a significant consideration for a plaintiff who has a choice of whether to file suit in Louisiana or in another state (to bring suit in a particular state, a plaintiff must demonstrate some relationship between that state and the lawsuit). Since a jury award could be overturned on appeal, the plaintiff with a strong case may wish to file in a common-law state. On the other hand, if the plaintiff is uncertain of success at the trial level, the possibility of broader review on appeal may make Louisiana the better choice. As a practical matter, such dilemmas arise infrequently, and most often involve complex multistate litigation concerning corporations.
civil law n. 1) a body of laws and legal concepts which come down from old Roman laws established by Emperor Justinian, and which differ from English Common Law which is the framework of most state legal systems. In the United States only Louisiana (relying on the French Napoleonic Code) has a legal structure based on Civil Law. 2) generic term for non-criminal law.
CIVIL LAW. The municipal code of the Romans is so called. It is a rule of action, adopted by mankind in a state of society. It denotes also the municipal law of the land. 1 Bouv. Inst. n. 11. See Law, civil.
The ancient law of England based upon societal customs and recognized and enforced by the judgments and decrees of the courts. The general body of statutes and case law that governed England and the American colonies prior to the American Revolution.
The principles and rules of action, embodied in case law rather than legislative enactments, applicable to the government and protection of persons and property that derive their authority from the community customs and traditions that evolved over the centuries as interpreted by judicial tribunals.
A designation used to denote the opposite of statutory, equitable, or civil, for example, a common-law action.
common law n. the traditional unwritten law of England, based on custom and usage which developed over a thousand years before the founding of the United States. The best of the pre-Saxon compendiums of the Common Law was reportedly written by a woman, Queen Martia, wife of a Briton king of a small English kingdom. Together with a book on the "law of the monarchy" by a Duke of Cornwall, Queen Martia's work was translated into the emerging English language by King Alfred (849-899 A.D.). When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, he combined the best of this Anglo-Saxon law with Norman law, which resulted in the English Common Law, much of which was by custom and precedent rather than by written code. By the 14th Century legal decisions and commentaries on the common law began providing precedents for the courts and lawyers to follow. It did not include the so-called law of equity (chancery) which came from the royal power to order or prohibit specific acts. The common law became the basic law of most states due to the Commentaries on the Laws of England, completed by Sir William Blackstone in 1769, which became every American lawyer's bible. Today almost all common law has been enacted into statutes with modern variations by all the states except Louisiana which is still influenced by the Napoleonic Code. In some states the principles of common law are so basic they are applied without reference to statute.
The common-law system prevails in England, the United States, and other countries colonized by England. It is distinct from the civil-law system, which predominates in Europe and in areas colonized by France and Spain. The common-law system is used in all the states of the United States except Louisiana, where French Civil Law combined with English Criminal Law to form a hybrid system. The common-law system is also used in Canada, except in the Province of Quebec, where the French civil-law system prevails.
Anglo-American common law traces its roots to the medieval idea that the law as handed down from the king's courts represented the common custom of the people. It evolved chiefly from three English Crown courts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the Exchequer, the King's Bench, and the Common Pleas. These courts eventually assumed jurisdiction over disputes previously decided by local or manorial courts, such as baronial, admiral's (maritime), guild, and forest courts, whose jurisdiction was limited to specific geographic or subject matter areas. Equity courts, which were instituted to provide relief to litigants in cases where common-law relief was unavailable, also merged with common-law courts. This consolidation of jurisdiction over most legal disputes into several courts was the framework for the modern Anglo-American judicial system.
Early common-law procedure was governed by a complex system of Pleading, under which only the offenses specified in authorized writs could be litigated. Complainants were required to satisfy all the specifications of a writ before they were allowed access to a common-law court. This system was replaced in England and in the United States during the mid-1800s. A streamlined, simplified form of pleading, known as Code Pleading or notice pleading, was instituted. Code pleading requires only a plain, factual statement of the dispute by the parties and leaves the determination of issues to the court.
Common-law courts base their decisions on prior judicial pronouncements rather than on legislative enactments. Where a statute governs the dispute, judicial interpretation of that statute determines how the law applies. Common-law judges rely on their predecessors' decisions of actual controversies, rather than on abstract codes or texts, to guide them in applying the law. Common-law judges find the grounds for their decisions in law reports, which contain decisions of past controversies. Under the doctrine of Stare Decisis, common-law judges are obliged to adhere to previously decided cases, or precedents, where the facts are substantially the same. A court's decision is binding authority for similar cases decided by the same court or by lower courts within the same jurisdiction. The decision is not binding on courts of higher rank within that jurisdiction or in other jurisdictions, but it may be considered as persuasive authority.
Because common-law decisions deal with everyday situations as they occur, social changes, inventions, and discoveries make it necessary for judges sometimes to look outside reported decisions for guidance in a CASE OF FIRST IMPRESSION (previously undetermined legal issue). The common-law system allows judges to look to other jurisdictions or to draw upon past or present judicial experience for analogies to help in making a decision. This flexibility allows common law to deal with changes that lead to unanticipated controversies. At the same time, stare decisis provides certainty, uniformity, and predictability and makes for a stable legal environment.
Under a common-law system, disputes are settled through an adversarial exchange of arguments and evidence. Both parties present their cases before a neutral fact finder, either a judge or a jury. The judge or jury evaluates the evidence, applies the appropriate law to the facts, and renders a judgment in favor of one of the parties. Following the decision, either party may appeal the decision to a higher court. Appellate courts in a common-law system may review only findings of law, not determinations of fact.
Under common law, all citizens, including the highest-ranking officials of the government, are subject to the same set of laws, and the exercise of government power is limited by those laws. The judiciary may review legislation, but only to determine whether it conforms to constitutional requirements.
Cantor, Norman F. 1997. Imagining the Law: Common Law and the Foundations of the American Legal System. New York: HarperCollins.
Kellogg, Frederic R. 2003. "Holmes, Common Law Theory, and Judicial Restraint." John Marshall Law Review 36 (winter): 457–505.
Pound, Roscoe. 1999. The Spirit of the Common Law. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction.
Strauss, David A. 2003. "Common Law, Common Ground, and Jefferson's Principle." Yale Law Journal 112 (May): 1717–55.