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.
The British sovereigntist and Eurosceptic position tends to emphasise a supposed unique British exception from the statist rationalism of civil law, in the ‘common sense’ of the accumulation of law arising from judicial precedent in the decisions of judges in previous cases. This supposedly British exception looks rather challenged when we consider the thoughts of the influential German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in his 1960 book Truth and Method. Gadamer refers to French rationalist Enlightenment in contrast with a German form of Enlightenment based on the original understanding of ‘prejudice’.
Prejudice, in Gadamer’s account, did not begin as a negative term for the constraints of false assumptions, but in a legal process in which the court forms a preliminary opinion in an early stage of proceedings. For Gadamer this represents the continuity of custom and the communal sense of justice in contrast to abstract rationalism. What he describes is not the same as the common law tradition, but represents another way in which the apparent underlying advantages of common law can appear in another system.
The idealisation of common law is really a claim to prolong the role of custom in law into the age of state statutes and deliberately constructed legal codes. Not that an age can be identified in which pure custom operated and no state created laws existed. It can be said that laws used to be less in number and articulated in terms of defending the wisdom of ancestors as part of a generally shared sense of justice.
However, the destruction of such a world, which depends on accepting fictions about the harmonious origin of laws outside the interests of power, was not from the triumph of civil law. The heroic moments of civil law in the process that leads from 1789 French Revolution through constitutional monarchy, republic, and Bonapartist autocracy, are the product of the decay of traditional societies in which localised and regionalised kinds of authority operated in ways which mixed statute and customary law, and where even in conditions of political autocracy the state ruled over either a very small community unified by common experience, or larger units which aggregated such communities rather than enforcing a very uniform and unitary form of sovereignty back by a hierarchical bureaucratic-military state machine.
There were of course elements of the latter, as in the eleventh century Norman Conquest of England, but even this established only a minute state machine by modern standards, which recognised the ‘privileges’ and ‘liberties’ of the City of London, the church, the barons, and so on. The idea of civil law is generally traced back to Rome, bracketed by the Twelve Tables of fifth century BCE Rome and the Corpus Juris of Civilis (often identified with the Institutes which form just one part of it) Justinian promulgated in the New Rome of Constantinople in the sixth century CE.
This civil law prevailed in Roman Britain for four centuries as it did from the Rhine to the Euphrates. The Roman world, including the Greek empire governed from Constantinople, that emerged in the sixth century, was nevertheless a world of localised traditional authority in which central state institutions were more like connecting threads rather than an all inclusive structure.
The Middle Ages saw a process of juridification, as Roman law continued in the church and was revived for the state, in which the uniform administration of justice became strong enough for a system of dominating unifying state military-bureaucratic power to emerge underneath sovereignty that was beginning to become more distinct from the person of a king (or occasionally the persons of an aristocratic assembly).
All European states went through a process, which has been implemented elsewhere, leading to what is now known as an administered society, administrative state, biopower, and all the other terms referring to the inclusive, comprehensive and unifying power of state law and state bureaucracy in relation to society. This was simultaneous with the development of capitalism as a dominant economic system working through unified national markets and trade between states.
A lot of what is said about the difference between common law and civil law represents a wish to return as far as possible to go back to a time before administered societies and even before juridification. There is no time at which law was purely traditional and consensual and no current possibility of even approaching that ideal. Concerns about the administered-juridified society have to be addressed with that world.
The common law tradition might or might not on average be better than the civil law tradition from that point of view, but common law is not what its strongest defenders wish it was and it is not obvious that civil law states in northern Europe including Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark, and in a slightly more qualified but real way, Germany are doing worse for liberty and prosperity than the English speaking common law countries. France, the homeland of modern civil law, is itself not doing at all badly compared with most countries in the world as it is and certainly in terms of human history.
For the next post the intention is to finally get onto charters and constitutions.