Civil law

The term civil law is used to refer to three different bodies of law:
  1. a legal system derived from Roman law and commonly used in Europe; here the contrast is common law;
  2. the set of rules governing relations between persons (either humans or legal personalities such as corporations); here the contrast is public law, especially criminal law;
  3. Secular law, as opposed to canon law.


(1) Civil law (as opposed to "common law") is a legal tradition which is the basis of the law in many countries of the world, especially in continental Europe, but also Quebec, Louisiana, Japan, Latin America, and elsewhere. (Some authors wrongly state that the Scottish legal system is also based on civil law, because of its origin in civil law. But it has been developing since 1707 into a mixed system combining elements of civil law and of common law as the House of Lords in England being the court of last resort for Scotland has interpreted Scots Law through the lens of English jurisprudence.) In the western and southwestern parts of the U.S., laws in such diverse areas as divorce and water rights show the influence of their Iberian civil-law heritage, being based on distinctly different principles from the laws of the northeastern states colonized by settlers with English common-law roots.

The civil law is based on Roman law, especially the Corpus Juris Civilis of Emperor Justinian, as latter developed through the Middle Ages by mediaeval legal scholars. The most authoritative modern source is Karl Eduard Zachariae.

Originally civil law was one common legal system in much of Europe, but with the development of nationalism in the 17th century Nordic countries and around the time of the French Revolution, it became fractured into separate national systems. This change was brought about by the development of national codes, most importantly the Napoleonic Code, but the German and Swiss codes are also of historical importance. Around this time civil law incorporated many ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

Some authors consider that civil law latter served as the foundation for socialist law used in Communist countries, which in this view would basically be civil law with the addition of Marxist-Leninist ideas.

Civil law, in this sense, is primarily contrasted to common law, which is the legal system developed among Anglo-Saxon peoples, especially in England. The primary difference is that, historically, common law was law developed by custom, beginning before there were any written laws and continuing to be applied by courts after there were written laws, too, whereas civil law develops out of the Roman law of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis proceeding from broad legal principles and the interpretation of doctrinal writings rather than the application of facts to legal fictions. In later times civil law became codified as droit coutumier or customary law that were local compliations of legal principles recognized as normative. This lead after the French Revolution to the development of Civil Codes in such jurisdictions such as France (with its Napoleonic Code), Quebec, Spain, and Germany (with its own German Civil Code), but remains uncodified in such countries as Scotland, Belgium, Namibia and South Africa to name a few countries that remain uncodified civilian or mixed jurisdictions.

In practice, in many countries based on civil law, such as France, case law still plays a considerable role.

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(2) Civil law regulates relationships amongst persons and organizations. Civil law, in this sense, is usually referring to redress to civil law courts (as opposed to criminal courts) and is often used as a means to resolve disputes involving accidents (torts such as negligence), libel and other intentional torts, contract disputes, the probate of willss, and trusts, and any other private matters that can be resolved between private parties. Violations of civil law are considered to be torts or breaches of contract, rather than crimes. Depending upon the regional government, this field of law contain commercial law and some kinds of administrative law remedies, though sometimes administrative law judges adjudicate penal law violations such as parking tickets and other minor offenses.

Contractual law enforces contracts by allowing a party, whose rights have been violated or breached, to collect damages and penalties from a defendant. Where monetary damages are deemed insufficient, civil courts may offer other remedies; such as forbidding someone to do an act (eg; an injunction) or formally changing someone's legal status (eg; divorce or change of name). Civil lawsuits sometimes occur as a result of criminal action, and such a lawsuit can be successful even when the defendant was found not guilty under criminal law. Some civil lawsuits, such as under the civil provisions of the U.S. federal RICO Racketeering, Influence, and Corrupt Organizations statutes, allow for a private right of action for damages when someone has suffered due to the violation of certain predicate crimes under federal law (such as wire and mail fraud and other specifically enumerated federal offenses).

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(3) Civil law (as opposed to "canon law") is the secular legal system of the national government when there is also a system of ecclesiastical courts governed by a church's laws in the same country. This was the situation in England that repeatedly caused problems between the two legal systems, most famously perhaps the one that led to the murder of Thomas à Becket during the reign of Henry II of England.


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