Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XVII: Common and Civil Law

The last post referred to the need to investigate ideas about law and related ideas in discussing Britain’s relation both with the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and with the rest of Europe. The big issue here is Anglosphere common law tradition versus Roman or civil law tradition in the European mainland and indeed most of the world outside the Anglosphere. Common law in this context refers to judge-made law based on precedent versus civil law referring to statute laws based on the will of the sovereign. Statute laws are laws instituted by the state, in writing, in public explicit acts of law making.

Judge-made laws based on precedent refers to the ways in which judges, using a general sense of justice, make judgements according to that sense of justice with the precedents of previous relevant judgements shaping the sense of justice along with the whole set of laws and their general principles. Civil law judges look at the text of statutes, as do common law judges, but apparently the latter category of judges are also concerned with the mixture of precedents and general spirit of the laws.

There are certainly some real differences between common law and civil law traditions, but how straight forward are these difference? The phrase ‘common law’ itself comes from the codification and national harmonisation of laws undertaken by French-speaking kings of England, after William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England. So the phrase ‘common law’ itself refers to the opposite of what common law has come to mean: the English legal tradition since the High Middle Ages has come out of conquest by an external power. We can argue about how far Anglo-Saxon laws and judicial formalities survived the Norman and Angevin re-codification, but there is no denying that the re-codification happened and that nothing now survives from the Anglo-Saxon era.

England started off in the earlier Middle Ages where all of post-Roman Europe stood, that is Roman law had collapsed and Germanic tribes introduced their own laws in conquered territories, where some elements of Roman law survived in the canon law of the church. The Roman law system itself reached a peak with the final codification undertaken under the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople during the sixth century. The transformation of the eastern part of the Roman Empire into a Greek empire included a decline in knowledge of Latin so understanding of the definitive law text was limited, but survived in the Empire including the last Roman-‘Byzantine’ holdings in Italy.

Knowledge of Roman law increased in the thirteenth century, in association with the growth of new universities where legal education played a very large role. England was not outside this process, but it is fair to say that it was less influenced by it than some continental powers, particularly France. The process of Revolution and Bonapartist rule, from 1789, produced a large scale deliberate construction of law as a unified system based on the will of the sovereign (whether elected assembly or absolute monarch) with regard to the laws, which was exported to other parts of Europe in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

The British commitment to common law was not entirely consistent since Scotland has always retained some differences from England in its legal system, which place it closer to the civil law tradition, at least compared with England. In the United States, there was a parallel to the French republican and Bonapartist experience of redesigned institutions in the process of adopting first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution of the United States, which unified the thirteen British colonies in a common structure.

The difference between French and American constitution making is often held to be that the French constitutions claimed that laws are the will of the people and the product of nature, while the American constitution is designed to disperse any idea of a single political law-making will between the different branches of federal government and the ‘several states’. However, the preamble to the US Constitution refers to ‘we the people’ and therefore asserts that it is the product of a single political will of the people in the union.

While the US Constitution does not refer directly to good laws as the work of nature, there were shared underlying assumptions in France and the US concerning the ‘natural’ status of good laws, good political institutions, and justice. It is at least true that the US constitution federalises rather than centralises, while the French process of about the same time ended in a very centralised state. This cannot be the difference between common and civil law systems though, since there are federal civil law states like Germany and Switzerland and unitary common law states like the UK and New Zealand, though the UK has been evolving in a more federal direction, if in a rather ad hoc and limited way, since the turn of the century.

Next, laws, charters and constitutions


12 thoughts on “Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XVII: Common and Civil Law

  1. Excellent. I’m teaching 2 sections of international business this fall and one of the early topics is variation in legal systems, specifically civil and common law. I’m going to put this [and your next promised post] in the course outline as a recommended reading. Thanks.

  2. […] The last post focused on the distinction between civil and common law, with regard to Britain’s position as a common law country in contrast with the civil law tradition of the rest of Europe. The promise at the end was to move onto laws, charters, and constitutions in this post. However, I have found it necessary to discuss the idealisation of common law further and look at how a large part of this looks back to a world which is lost, regardless of predominant legal system as societies have roughly speaking moved from customary law to ‘juridification’ (state centred comprehensive law penetrating all social relations, and then the world we live in now of the administrative state. […]

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