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Civil Law vs. Common Law: What's the Difference?

By Janet White || Published on January 6, 2024
Civil law is a legal system based on written statutes and codes, whereas common law is based on judicial decisions and precedent.

Key Differences

Civil law, predominant in Europe and Latin America, relies on comprehensive legal codes and statutes drafted by legislative bodies. Common law, found primarily in the UK and its former colonies, is grounded in court judgments and precedent.
In civil law systems, judges apply the statutes to cases without much scope for interpretation. In common law systems, judges interpret laws and their decisions can set legal precedents.
Civil law provides a more predictable and systematic legal framework, with detailed codes covering various aspects of law. Common law is more adaptable, evolving through judicial decisions over time.
In civil law, legal scholars play a significant role in developing and interpreting the law. In common law, the judiciary plays a more prominent role in shaping legal principles through case law.
The civil law system is less adversarial than the common law system, focusing more on finding the truth than on the strategy of opposing parties. Common law, on the other hand, features a more adversarial approach, emphasizing the role of lawyers in arguing cases.

Comparison Chart

Basis of Law

Written statutes and codes
Judicial decisions and precedent

Role of Judges

Apply laws, limited interpretation
Interpret laws, set precedents

Legal Framework

Systematic, predictable
Adaptable, evolving


By legal scholars and legislators
Through judiciary and case law

Nature of Legal Proceedings

Less adversarial, truth-focused
More adversarial, strategy-focused

Civil Law and Common Law Definitions

Civil Law

A system where legislative bodies draft detailed legal codes.
In civil law systems, the role of a judge is to apply the written law to cases.

Common Law

A legal system based on court judgments and precedents.
The doctrine of stare decisis is a fundamental principle of common law.

Civil Law

A legal tradition emphasizing codified law.
Many countries in Europe follow the civil law tradition.

Common Law

Law that originates from customs and judicial decisions.
Common law rights are not written in statutes but developed through court decisions.

Civil Law

Laws governing private rights and remedies.
The civil law suit for breach of contract was settled out of court.

Common Law

A system where judicial decisions guide legal principles.
In common law, past judicial rulings are heavily relied upon in current cases.

Civil Law

Non-criminal law.
Property disputes are typically handled under civil law.

Common Law

Law developed by judges through decisions in court cases.
Common law evolves as judges interpret laws differently over time.

Civil Law

A legal system based on written codes and statutes.
The French Civil Code provides the basis for civil law in France.

Common Law

A legal tradition predominant in the UK and the US.
The United States follows a common law system, with variations across states.

Common Law

Of, relating to, or based on common law.

Common Law

Of or relating to a common-law marriage.

Common Law

Of or pertaining to common law.

Common Law

Relating to common-law marriage.

Common Law

Based on common law;
A common-law right


How does common law develop?

Through judicial decisions and legal precedent.

Are civil law judges active in law-making?

No, they primarily interpret and apply existing statutes.

Is civil law more predictable than common law?

Generally yes, due to its reliance on detailed statutes.

What is precedent in common law?

Precedent refers to previous court decisions used as a guide.

Do lawyers in common law systems have a different role?

Yes, they often have a more significant role in shaping legal arguments.

What is the primary source of civil law?

Written statutes and legal codes are the primary sources.

Can common law change over time?

Yes, it evolves with new judicial decisions and interpretations.

Are civil law codes comprehensive?

Yes, they aim to cover all areas of law systematically.

Can common law principles conflict with statutes?

Sometimes, though statutes generally take precedence.

Is the role of precedent stronger in common law?

Yes, precedent plays a critical role in common law systems.

Is civil law practiced in the US?

The US primarily follows common law, with some civil law influences in Louisiana.

Can common law vary between jurisdictions?

Yes, it can vary significantly.

Is jury use common in civil law systems?

No, jury trials are more common in common law systems.

How does civil law handle contracts?

Through specific codes and statutes.

Is legal training different in civil law countries?

Yes, it often focuses more on understanding codified laws.

Are civil law statutes updated frequently?

They can be, depending on legislative changes.

Are there written constitutions in common law countries?

Yes, many common law countries have written constitutions.

Do civil law systems use jury trials?

Rarely, as judges typically decide cases.

How do common law courts view past decisions?

They view them as highly influential, though not absolutely binding.

Do common law judges have more discretion?

Yes, especially in interpreting and applying the law.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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