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Civil law and common law: Total opposites or much of a muchness?

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The steady convergence of the two systems

ladyofjustice

Common law and civil law are the two main legal systems operating across the globe.

These systems are inherently separate and distinct. Classically, case law is the principle source of law in the common law system, and statutory law the one of the civil law system. Most people think judicial activism is an attribute of the common law, while civil law judges are more passive.

But the dividing line is not so clear anymore — many factors have participated in reducing these differences, leading to their convergence.

Characteristics of the two systems

The majority of English-speaking countries practise common law, such as England, the United States and Hong Kong. Civil law is practised by the majority of European countries and South American countries as well as by China.

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Civil law’s most prevalent feature is its rule-based nature: that the law’s core principles are codified. However, civil law countries are now adopting more of a case law-heavy approach. For example, all French codes contain multiple case law references under each statute to explain the meaning of its wording. French jurist Portalis famously said in a preliminary speech made during the presentation of the Civil Code Project in 1827:

The function of the law is to fix, in broad outline, the general maxims of justice, to establish principles rich in suggestiveness, and not to descend into details.

Some terms employed in the French Civil Code are out-dated (it was first published in 1804 after all), and are too short to be used properly. For instance, theft is described by Article 311-1 of the French Criminal Code as “fraudulently taking something from someone”. Such formulation doesn’t specify whether the offence covers theft of material goods only or also that of immaterial ones. Recently, the Court of Cassation (France’s highest court) ruled that an employee who stole information from his employer’s computer committed a theft. This decision was published and thus proclaimed as a principle. Consequently, case law helps to fill the gaps left by broad statutes.

Another example is Article L711-3 of the French Intellectual Property Code, which asserts that trademarks should not be contrary to morality. As morality evolves with time, judges have to interpret and develop the scope of morality.

And many common law countries are now codifying their law. For example, Hong Kong adopted the Supply of Services Ordinance stating that if parties to an agreement were silent about the price then the buyer must pay a reasonable price. French law also stands for this principle concerning the supply of services.

Hong Kong has also adopted the Misrepresentation Ordinance under which the representator is liable for a negligent misrepresentation. Even though some case law already covered the liability of the representator before the enactment of this ordinance, lawyers will most likely base their arguments on the newer Ordinance because the earlier cases covered only fraudulent misrepresentation or negligent misrepresentation, while the Ordinance covers negligent misrepresentation as if it was fraudulent misrepresentation, allowing for a recovery of all the losses.

Institutions

Stare decisis is the principle according to which lower courts are bound by higher courts’ decisions. This is supposed to be strictly followed by common law judges. However, they apply it with flexibility, because — as Zweigert and Kotz explain — they won’t follow a decision that seems unsatisfactory because the ratio decidendi doesn’t cover the instant dispute.

A judge will also be likely to overrule an earlier precedent to meet “the needs and interest of the times”. Take the MacPherson case where English judges overturned the doctrine holding a manufacturer “liable to persons other than his immediate buyer for injuries caused as the foreseeable result of his negligence” only if the goods were inherently dangerous. This overruling was justified once again by social propositions.

So it seems the differences between the two systems are more about the form than the substance — at least when compared to other legal systems such as Islamic law that relies on the law of God — as civil law and common law have similar purposes. This convergence serves a more harmonised international integration and provides for successful treaties between countries of different legal systems, such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Katia Beider is a law student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Sources

Melvin, E, The nature of the Common Law, (Harvard, 1991)

Merryman, J, “On the convergence and divergence of the Civil Law and Common Law”, Stanford Journal of International Law, 1981

Zweigert and Kotz, An introduction to Comparative Law, 3d edition, 1998

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8 Comments

Anonymous

Are you any relation to Justin?

Anonymous

Legislation is the actually the principle source of law for common law too, hence parliamentary supremacy.

Anonymous

“Judicial activism” might be a major difference, but it really doesn’t strike me as a particularly meaningful discussion. Arguably, the principal source of difference in approach lies in how rooted common law is in equity and trusts. Should also have discussed issues like Birks arguing in favour of the civil law “absence of basis” approach to unjust enrichment.

Anonymous

I’m currently working in the channel islands, which displays (or at least until recently used to display) quite an interesting hybrid of English common law, French/European civil law, and Norman customary law. Nowadays it’s pretty much just a rip-off of English law, but it’s pretty interesting to learn about the different systems mixed for a few hundred years.

Danger Mouser Chief Agitator & Rabble Rouser

Isn’t them one of the last feudal legal systems in the world? I can’t remember which but something, something about only the lord (currently a lady?) of the island can keep a pigeon coop and have a dog. Something hilarious like that. Made me larf.

Anyway. Civil systems are poop. Long-live the Glorious Common Law – province of the loftily-reasoning, home of the logically brave.

The Jolly Pillarbox

I think that’s Sark or Alderney

Danger Mouser Chief Agitator & Feudal Law Upstarterer

Yeah. Sark. That rings the right bell. Pretty amusing law – I intend to visit for a prolonged holiday one day and bring my dog. See what happens.

S.D.

Great blog!

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