code, in law, in its widest sense any body of legal rules expressed in fixed and authoritative written form. A statute thus may be termed a code. Codes contrast with customary law (including common law), which is susceptible of various nonbinding formulations, as in the legal opinions of judges. The earliest codes (e.g., the Roman Twelve Tables) met the popular demand that oral regulations be written down so that legal chicanery might be prevented. In later Roman law, however, the term code acquired its modern meaning of a precisely formulated statement of the principles underlying some branch of law (e.g., contracts) or an entire legal system. One of the greatest codes was the Roman Corpus Juris Civilis. In Europe, in the late 18th cent., after the general adoption of civil law by the continental countries, jurists asserted that similar codes were needed, and the parent modern European codification, the Code Napoléon, appeared (1804) and was followed by many others. The civil law code is an attempt to determine in advance what legal exigencies will arise and to furnish the means for meeting them. Basic legal principles (e.g., that contracts express the will of the parties) are worked out in systematic detail and great attention is given to consistency. The movement for codification, however, has been largely unsuccessful in countries where common law prevails, such as the United States, despite the argument that the principles of common law are sometimes uncertain and often contradict one another. Advocates of the common law assert that civil law makes possibly futile attempts to predict and control the course of developments. In the United States the term code is sometimes also applied to the statutes of a state or of the federal government that have been edited to eliminate duplication and inconsistencies and arranged under appropriate headings.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.