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Common Law vs Civil Law Systems

9. What are the “common law” and “civil law” systems?

Two legal systems exist within the United States, the common law system and the civil law system. Forty-nine of the fifty US States exclusively follow the common law system. Louisiana is the one US state that recognizes common law and civil law systems. Despite the dominance of the common law system within the United States, it is important to understand the civil law system – as many foreign legal systems are based in civil law.

•    Civil Law System – The civil law system is “code-based”. The law-making body seeks to address specific areas of law through statute or codified rules. When a case comes before a court, the judiciary is charged with interpreting the codified rules when applying those rules to the facts of the case. This process is similar to that of the common law system. The difference lies in the effect of the judiciary’s interpretation of the law. While the court’s decision may be influential in future cases, its reasoning and interpretation of the law have little legal effect outside of the respective case. The judicial interpretation does not constitute “precedent” that binds the court (or any subordinate courts) in future trials.

•    Common Law System – The common law system, in contrast, centers on the judicial interpretation of statutes. That is to say, courts interpret statutes to determine the intent of lawmakers in passing the law. This interpretation guides how the statute is to be applied in a given context. Appellate review of legal cases provides opportunity for the judiciary to write opinions explaining how the law should be applied. These opinions serve as precedent for the court and any subordinate courts within that jurisdiction. In Latin, this is known as “stare decisis” or “let the decision stand”. The court’s interpretation becomes the common law in that jurisdiction. In this way, the court develops a body of common law that applies alongside the statute.

•    Discussion: What do think are some of the advantages of the civil law system? What about the common law system? Try to identify some countries follow a common law system similar to that of the United States? Try to identify some countries that follow a civil law system similar to that of Louisiana.

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