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What is Civil Law?

By Charity Delich
Updated May 16, 2024
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Civil law is a term that can be used to describe two different legal concepts. On the one hand, it is used to describe a body of law that is centered around finding peaceful resolutions to non-criminal disputes. On the other hand, the term it denotes a legal system that is practiced in many countries around the world.

In the context of a non-criminal method of resolving disputes, civil law covers a wide range of areas. For instance, it encompasses issues relating to divorce cases, child custody suits, and child support proceedings. In addition, it covers business disagreements, such as a contract dispute. It also includes lawsuits brought to recover damages to property or to a person as well as property ownership issues. Each country generally has its own set of civil laws that have been developed by courts or legislators.

By and large, a civil law court is a means for people or entities to resolve legal disputes in a peaceful and orderly manner. Most civil courts seek to provide a legal remedy to a problem, such as paying monetary damages, agreeing to perform in a certain manner, or abstaining from a certain activity. This type of law can be based on statutes, judge-made rulings, or both, depending on the particular jurisdiction.

The other meaning of civil law relates to civil legal systems, which are derived from Roman law and the Code of Justinian. Countries that have adopted civil legal systems generally rely on laws or codes that have been written down and formally codified. Typically, they do not rely on customs or turn case decisions into legal precedent. With a civil legal system, courts simply apply the principals outlined in statutes when rendering a decision.

Civil law systems are distinct from common law systems, which follow Anglo-Saxon legal principals. Common law systems are used by the United States and the majority of the British Commonwealth. Under a common law system, the judiciary relies on case law as well as statutory law in resolving disputes. Once a decision is made in a particular case, that decision effectively becomes law, and it can be used by judges as precedent in deciding cases of a similar nature in the future.

Civil legal systems usually follow either the French Napoleonic Code or the German Civil Code. Countries following the French system include Spain, Italy, and Holland as well as former French colonies. German Civil Code countries include Switzerland, Austria, Japan, and many Scandinavian countries.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By BostonIrish — On Jan 18, 2011

There are various civil law databases accessible on the internet on state and federal websites. Layman knowledge of legal procedures and litigation has become more accessible than ever in the modern day, and people don't have an excuse for failing to educate them in these terms when needed.

By JavaGhoul — On Jan 16, 2011

Civil law terminology may sound outdated and delphic to many listeners. "Legalese" is the term usually applied to the unique legal language used in many English-speaking courts. The skilled usage of this language and memorization of various legal documents are the things which make Law School. Often, good politicians and lawyers can speak in terms which are over most people's heads in order to win a case.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 13, 2011

The civil law tradition dates back to very ancient times, when appointed wise people or judges, were delegated to groups of people to decide disputes. In the Pentateuch, Moses was originally required to handle all the cases. His father-in-law saw this and disapproved, saying that Moses should delegate cases to a hierarchical system of law. This eased the burden on Moses, and to this day we follow a system that is on the shoulders of more than one person.

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