Québec stands out in Canada as the only jurisdiction dedicated to the codification of all its laws. Now, circa 2010, all provinces have "codified" their laws in a set of "Revised Statutes". While Québec too, has a set of topical "revised statutes", it alone has published a one-stop-shop compendium of "common law", le tres chic Civil Code.

In 1663, when the French King assumed jurisdiction over the territory now known as Québec, he declared that the population would be subject to the "Custom of Paris".

But after Québec was ceded to the British in 1763, the English monarchy and their North American governors never did set down exactly which laws were to be applied in the territory of what was then known as New France. Legal chaos reigned. Matters got so bad that in 1786, one survey discovered that judges were applying French or English law depending on their nationality (for more on the history, see The Quebec Civil Law Kerfuffle (1763-1774)).

Quebec Civil Code imageIn 1861, the National Assembly of Québec ordered a bilingual consolidation of Québec civil law (all law that was non-criminal in nature). The official order for that consolidation was worded as follows, with the word "Québec" substituted for the words "Lower Canada" throughout:

"The laws of Lower Canada (Québec) in civil matters are mainly those which, at the time of the cession of the country to the British Crown, were in force in that part of France then governed by the Custom of Paris, modified by provincial statutes or by the introduction of portions of the laws of England in peculiar cases. It therefore happens that the great body of the laws exist only in the language which is not the mother tongue of the inhabitants of British origin, while other portions are not to be found in the mother tongue of those of French origin. And whereas the laws and customs in force in France have there been altered and reduced to one general Code so that the old laws still in force in Lower Canada are no longer re-printed or commented upon in France, and it is becoming more and more difficult to obtain copies of them, or of the commentaries upon them. And whereas the reasons aforesaid, and the great advantage which have resulted from codification, as well in France as in the State of Louisiana, and other places, render it manifestly expedient to provide for the codification of the civil laws of Lower Canada."

The first Civil Code was approved in 1866 and was greatly inspired by the contents of the codification that had just occurred in France and which had become known by the name of the then-French Emperor that had ordered it, the Code Napoléon.

But the Quebec codifiers did opt for some parts of British law such as commercial law, maritime law and parts of the English law of wills.

In fact, the Civil Code of Québec is nothing more than a huge provincial statute (or law). As such, it was subjected to a complete overhaul by the Québec government in the late-eighties. The reform took years but culminated in a new Civil Code which went into effect on January 1, 1994.

For all their stated intention to give the law to the people by way of a code, the drafters couldn't resist an overdose of legalese right from the get-go, the preamble:

"The Civil Code comprises a body of rules which, in all matters within the letter, spirit or object of its provisions, lays down the jus commune, expressly or by implication. In these matters, the Code is the foundation of all other laws, although other laws may complement the Code or make exceptions to it."

Jus commune?

What is that?

A new brand of tomato juice?

No.

"Jus" is Latin for "law" and "commune" means "common"; so: "common law"!

The "new" Civil Code is divided up into ten "books" as follows:

  • Persons (basic individual rights of each person such as the right to refuse medical treatment, privacy, children's rights, names and civic registries, domicile and residence rules and incapacity of persons such as by age or mental infirmity.
  • Successions (wills, estates, probate and inheriting).
  • Property (moveable and immoveable property, possession, neighbourhood nuisances, land boundaries, right-of-way, condominium ownership and the rules on the administration of the property of another).
  • Obligations (This book is packed and is subdivided into chapters on topics such as contract law including rules for failure to perform an obligation and civil liability (tort) rules for compensation for a wrong caused outside of a contractual obligation, sale of goods, leasing, gifts, transportation of goods, employment contracts, partnerships, loans and insurance).
  • Hypothecs (the Québec Civil Code unusual word for mortgages and the sale of land or "immoveable" property).
  • Evidence (who has the burden of proof and how certain things can be proven under Québec law).
  • Publication of Rights (This book deals mainly with the registration process on property, mainly immoveable property such as buildings).
  • Private International Law (Rules for solving legal problems which involve laws, property or people residing in, or from another state).

Samples from the new Civil Code:

Article 153. Full age or the age of majority is eighteen years. On attaining full age, a person ceases to be a minor and has the full exercise of all his civil rights.

Article 1457. Every person has a duty to abide by the rules of conduct which lie upon him, according to the circumstances, usage or law, so as not to cause injury to another. Where he is endowed with reason and fails in this duty, he is responsible for any injury he causes to another person and is liable to reparation for the injury, whether it be bodily, moral or material in nature. He is also liable, in certain cases, to reparation for injury caused by the act or fault of another person or by the act of things in his custody.

A concise, mostly easy-to-understand and portable code of laws.

Thanks in part to Quebec's example, codification is growing in popularity. Although preferring to contain their laws into separate entities by subject matter, all Canadian provinces have now codified vast amounts of their law in multi-volume sets of statutes. The federal government has followed suit and in fact, Canada benefits from a single, national Criminal Code.  This removes the law from the hands of judges who  otherwise evolve the law on a complex system of precedents (aka common law).

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