civil law


civil law, as used in this article, a modern legal system based upon Roman law, as distinguished from common law. Civil law is based on written legal codes, a hallmark of the Roman legal system, in which disputes were settled by reference to a written legal code arrived at through legislation, edicts, and the like; common law is based on the precedents created by judicial decisions over time. The tendency in civil law is to create a unified legal system by working out with maximum precision the conclusions to be drawn from basic principles. The civil law judge is bound by the provisions of the written law. The traditional civil law decision states the applicable provision from the code or from a relevant statute, and the judgment is based upon that provision.

With a few exceptions, the countries on the continent of Europe, the countries that were former colonies of such continental powers (e.g., the Latin American countries), and other countries that have recently adopted Western legal systems (e.g., Japan) follow civil law. It is also the foundation for the law of Quebec prov. and of Louisiana. Modern countries that do not adhere to the civil law (this includes Great Britain and all the United States except Louisiana) for the most part were colonized by England and apply the system of common law prevailing there.

In general usage, civil law also means the rules that govern private legal affairs; in this sense it contrasts with criminal law and, to a lesser degree, public law.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Law: Divisions and Codes