Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Civil Law Definition:

A body of law derived and evolved directly from Roman Law, the primary feature of which is that laws are struck in writing; codified, and not determined, as in the common law, by the opinions of judges based on historic customs.

Related Terms: Common Law, Civil Code, Roman Law, Quasi-Delict, Obligations, Ecclesiastical Law, Civil Liability, Civil Law Rule, Law

Has several meanings. In common law jurisdictions, the term can mean law as between citizens; law which regulates affairs between citizens or persons as between themselves (private law).

Can also be distinguished from the criminal law which is the state or government's list of prohibited actions, and the process or procedure for dealing with transgressions thereof.

The most common use of the term is to refer to civil law legal systems. Many states in the world have comprehensive legal systems called civil law jurisdictions, largely inspired by Roman law, the primary feature of which was that laws were written into a collection; codified, and not determined, as is common law, by judges. Germany and France sustained the bridge between Roman law and civil law (old French law book cover pictured).

Civil law jurisdictions purport to provide all citizens with an accessible and written collection of the laws which apply to them and which judges must follow.

French civil law book coverThe primary feature of civil law (since the 450 BC • Twelve Tables) is that law has to be set in ink and published before it can apply to the people; to thus avoid the discretionary and insular justice imposed from time to time by judges in their written decisions (and which, in a common law jurisdiction, becomes law until it is changed by yet another decision or by statute). These documents - nothing more than a very large statute - are called civil codes.

Most common law jurisdictions have taken to codifying much of their law in subject-specific statutes.

Louisiana's Civil Code deals with:

"... the legal capacity of persons, the contract of and effects of marriage, grounds for divorce, classification of children and parental authority, the acquisition, ownership, use, disposition, or donation of things and property, conventional obligations (contracts), and the resolution of conflict of laws".

Speaking of the civil law and civil code systems, and comparing to common law, one law professor wrote:

"One might say that the world is divided into two manners of men: the man who says: 'I have in my pocket a blueprint plan of the universe, complete and written down: whenever I meet a new problem or have an old one I have only to consult my plan and by simple logic deduce the appropriate answer.'

"Of such men are good civil law lawyers made.

"And the man who says: 'I don't have a preconceived plan for the universe all written down: I can't anticipate all the problems of the world: I'll meet them as they come, one by one bringing to bear upon them my experience and common sense, and I'll not lay down any general rule, but answer only the problem before me.'

"Such men make good common law lawyers.

"From these different positions certain conclusions seem possible. First, the man who lives by the preconceived plan will find his stability, his security in the written word - the code - the statute - and will say that the general principles set forth therein survive even erroneous application, while the man who declares that he has no preconceived plan, but only individual solutions to particular problems, is apt to find his stability, his security in the individual instances and their conscientious repetition in experience."

Philadelphia judge F. Biddle (1866-1968), who sat at the Nuremberg Trials, once remarked that:

"In this court, the unwritten law is not worth the paper it isn't written on."

Civil law states generally have a civil code, or a single code of the most-used or commonly referred to laws, such as Quebec, Puerto Rico, France, Louisiana and almost all of Africa, Asia and Europe (except, notably, England). 

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