Code Law: Characteristics of a Civil Law System

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  • 0:01 Defining Code Law
  • 2:47 Characteristics of Civil Law
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson will discuss the characteristics of a civil code system of law and how it differs from a common law system. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.

Defining Code Law

We all know that there are things in life that are right and wrong. We also know that if we choose to do the wrong things in life that there are consequences or punishments. For example, say you were down on your luck and you chose to rob a bank. Doing something like this would no doubt result in some serious punishment. How a state or country decides to punish you largely depends on what system of law they have.

Most nations today follow one of two major legal traditions: common law or civil law. The common law tradition emerged in England during the Middle Ages and was applied within British colonies across different continents, including the United States. Interestingly though, the state of Louisiana is governed by a civil law system rather than a common law system, like the rest of the United States. Conversely, the civil law tradition developed in continental Europe at the same time and was applied in the colonies of European imperial powers, such as Spain, Portugal, and France.

Civil law is also sometimes known as a civil code system or even by other names, such as Roman law, Continental law, or Napoleonic law. All of these names refer to eras or places in which civil law was developed. What makes this system so unique is that it is a system of law that is based on a collection of laws or codes brought together, known as codification.

Countries with civil law systems have comprehensive, continuously updated legal codes that specify all kinds of matters that can be brought before a court, as well as the applicable procedure and the appropriate punishment for each offense. More specifically, there is often a code that deals with the core areas of private law that deals with such things as business practices and negligence lawsuits, referred to as civil code, and a code that deals with criminal practices, referred to as the penal or criminal code. So in our bank robbery example, if you robbed a bank in an area whose legal system was organized under a civil law system, the judge would look to the exact laws that were written down regarding what types of procedures need to be followed to handle the crime of robbing a bank and also to the laws that dictate what type of punishment should be meted out as a result.

A common law system, on the other hand, is a system of law that is based on historical cases and precedent rather than codified law. In other words, these systems look towards past cases that are similar to their own current one and try to rule in the same manner. So in our bank robbing scenario, if you were being judged under a common law system, a judge or jury would look at past cases to see how courts handled bank robbers in the past and would then try to rule as closely as possible to that.

Characteristics of Civil Law

There are some other distinctive features of a civil code system that also need to be addressed. For instance, in civil code systems, courts usually do not have much freedom to interpret laws. Judges are bound to what the codes of the country say to do in a case. The point here is that laws applied to citizens are made by citizens through their legislative branches, and judges are there to administer laws, not make them.

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