The world’s legal systems are predominantly divided into two main types: common law and civil law. These legal frameworks dictate how laws are created, interpreted, and applied within different jurisdictions. Understanding the distinctions between common law, prevalent in countries like the United States and England, and civil law, found in most of Europe and Latin America, is essential for comprehending global legal practices.

Common Law: The Use of Case Law Precedent

The common law system originated in England and was spread across the globe by British colonialism. Today, it’s the foundation of the legal systems in the United States, England, Canada, and other former British colonies. Common law is characterized by the doctrine of legal precedent; decisions made by higher courts are binding on lower courts within the same jurisdiction. This principle is known as stare decisis (to stand by things decided).


In common law jurisdictions, judges play a central role in shaping the law. They interpret legislation and apply it to individual cases, but they also make law by setting precedents through their judgments. This means that the law can evolve over time as new decisions are made. Legislation enacted by the government provides a framework, but the detailed development of legal rules occurs through court decisions.

Civil Law: Codified Statutes

In contrast, civil law systems are based on comprehensive legal codes that cover broad areas of law, such as contracts, torts, and family law. This system originated in Roman law and was later developed in continental Europe. Civil law is the most widespread legal system in the world, adopted in various forms by countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.


Civil law jurisdictions place greater emphasis on written laws and codes rather than judicial decisions. Judges in civil law countries have the primary task of applying the law as it is written, without the authority to create or interpret it expansively. The role of precedent is much less significant in civil law; past decisions are not binding, but they may serve as guidance. The law is presumed to be exhaustively codified, and legislative changes are the primary means of legal evolution.

Key Differences and Similarities

  • Source of Law: In common law systems, law is created through both legislation and judicial precedents. In civil law systems, the source of law is primarily statutory, with a collection of codes that are applied to specific cases.
  • Judicial Role: Common law judges have a more prominent role in law-making through their interpretations and the setting of precedents. Civil law judges act more as investigators and apply the law as written, with less discretion to interpret or make the law.
  • Legal Evolution: Common law evolves through judicial decisions, allowing for adaptability and flexibility. Civil law changes primarily through legislative amendments, requiring formal processes for legal adjustments.
  • Precedents: Binding precedents are a hallmark of common law, guiding future cases. In civil law, while previous decisions may inform, they do not bind future decisions.

Despite these differences, globalization and international legal developments have led to a degree of convergence. For instance, civil law jurisdictions have begun to recognize the practical value of precedents in certain contexts, and common law countries have seen increasing codification of specific areas of law.


Understanding the nuances between common law and civil law systems is crucial for international legal practice and comparative law studies.



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