Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Obligations Definition:

A legal requirement established by law, contract or as a result of unlawful harm caused to the person or property of another.

Related Terms: Contract, Delict, Quasi-Delict, Civil Liability, Civil Law

An umbrella term of civil law encompassing the resulting legal liabilities or duties that arise from contracts, civil liability (personal injuries and torts) or criminal liability.

Gaius, the Roman law jurist circa 150, theorized that obligations comprised most civil rights, rights that were in personam.

The two main branches of first Roman law, then the civil law of obligations are (1) contracts and (2) civil liability arising from delicts and quasi-delicts (similar to what the common law captures as intentional torts, negligence or personal injury law).

In the context of civil law in the US state of Louisiana, obligation was defined by Litvinoff as:

"... a legal bond that binds two persons in such a way that one of them, the creditor or obligee, is entitled to demand from the other, the debtor or obligor, a certain performance.

" ... a legal relation which presupposes at least two parties, the duty is confined to one of them, the debtor or obligor....

"At the other end, however, on the part of the creditor or obligee, there is a legal right that entitles him to demand performance of that duty."

Similarly, in Quebec civil law, obligations are been presented as a legal requirement between a debtor or obligor and a creditor or obligee with the former obliged, under threat of being forced to do by order of a court, to either perform some act (such as the payment of money) or of abstaining from doing a specified act.

Thus, obligations can be unilateral and need not be reciprocal.

As a child of the Roman law, the law of obligations has a rich legal history.

Pineau notes that the early Roman jurists believed that the law of obligations was perfect and not subject to change as it was based on irrefutable common sense, or natural law.

Under Roman law, obligations were subject to rituals and were enforceable against the person of the debtor (often by slavery).

Gradually, the oral agreement was recognized at law and subject to enforcement and with that came a recognition of a new branch of obligation in the civil law, even as this evolution of the law was occurring in the English common law: the obligation to compensate for harm done by negligence or personal injury.


  • Baudoin, Jean-Louis, Les Obligations, 5e Edition (Montreal: Editions Yvon Blais, 1998), page 17 ("... le lien de droit, existant entre deux ou plusieurs personnes, par lequel une personne, apelée débiteur, est tenue envers une autre, appelée créancier, d'éxecuter une prestation consistant à faire ou à ne pas faire quelque chose, sous la ménace d'une contrainte juridique").
  • Buckland, W. and McNair, A., Roman Law and Common Law (Cambridge: University Press, 1965), page 193.
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Civil Law Dictionary
  • Litvinoff, S., Louisiana Civil Law Treatise, Volume 5, "The Law of Obligations" (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1992), pages 2-3.
  • Pineau, J. and Gaudet, S., Théorie des Obligations, 4e Édition (Montréal: Thémis, 2001), pages 1-2. 

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