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6 de fev de 2014

The history of cmmon law

Most nations today follow one of two major legal traditions: common law or civil law. The common law tradition emerged in England during the Middle Ages and was applied within British colonies across continents. The civil law tradition developed in continental Europe at the same time and was applied in the colonies of European imperial powers such as Spain and Portugal. Civil law was also adopted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by countries formerly possessing distinctive legal traditions, such as Russia and Japan, that sought to reform their legal systems in order to gain economic and political power comparable to that of Western European nation-states.

To an American familiar with the terminology and process of our legal system, which is based on English common law, civil law systems can be unfamiliar and confusing. Even though England had many profound cultural ties to the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages, its legal tradition developed differently from that of the continent for a number of historical reasons, and one of the most fundamental ways in which they diverged was in the establishment of judicial decisions as the basis of common law and legislative decisions as the basis of civil law. Before looking at the history, let’s examine briefly what this means.

Common law is generally uncodified. This means that there is no comprehensive compilation of legal rules and statutes. While common law does rely on some scattered statutes, which are legislative decisions, it is largely based on precedent, meaning the judicial decisions that have already been made in similar cases. These precedents are maintained over time through the records of the courts as well as historically documented in collections of case law known as yearbooks and reports. The precedents to be applied in the decision of each new case are determined by the presiding judge. As a result, judges have an enormous role in shaping American and British law. Common law functions as an adversarial system, a contest between two opposing parties before a judge who moderates. A jury of ordinary people without legal training decides on the facts of the case. The judge then determines the appropriate sentence based on the jury’s verdict.

Civil Law, in contrast, is codified. Countries with civil law systems have comprehensive, continuously updated legal codes that specify all matters capable of being brought before a court, the applicable procedure, and the appropriate punishment for each offense. Such codes distinguish between different categories of law: substantive law establishes which acts are subject to criminal or civil prosecution, procedural law establishes how to determine whether a particular action constitutes a criminal act, and penal law establishes the appropriate penalty. In a civil law system, the judge’s role is to establish the facts of the case and to apply the provisions of the applicable code. Though the judge often brings the formal charges, investigates the matter, and decides on the case, he or she works within a framework established by a comprehensive, codified set of laws. The judge’s decision is consequently less crucial in shaping civil law than the decisions of legislators and legal scholars who draft and interpret the codes.

The following sections explore the historical roots of these differences.

The term civil law derives from the Latin ius civile, the law applicable to all Roman cives or citizens. Its origins and model are to be found in the monumental compilation of Roman law commissioned by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century CE. While this compilation was lost to the West within decades of its creation, it was rediscovered and made the basis for legal instruction in eleventh-century Italy and in the sixteenth century came to be known as Corpus iuris civilis. Succeeding generations of legal scholars throughout Europe adapted the principles of ancient Roman law in the Corpus iuris civilis to contemporary needs. Medieval scholars of Catholic church law, or canon law, were also influenced by Roman law scholarship as they compiled existing religious legal sources into their own comprehensive system of law and governance for the Church, an institution central to medieval culture, politics, and higher learning. By the late Middle Ages, these two laws, civil and canon, were taught at most universities and formed the basis of a shared body of legal thought common to most of Europe. The birth and evolution of the medieval civil law tradition based on Roman law was thus integral to European legal development. It offered a store of legal principles and rules invested with the authority of ancient Rome and centuries of distinguished jurists, and it held out the possibility of a comprehensive legal code providing substantive and procedural law for all situations.

As civil law came into practice throughout Europe, the role of local custom as a source of law became increasingly important—particularly as growing European states sought to unify and organize their individual legal systems. Throughout the early modern period, this desire generated scholarly attempts to systematize scattered, disparate legal provisions and local customary laws and bring them into harmony with rational principles of civil law and natural law. Emblematic of these attempts is the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius’ 1631 work, Introduction to Dutch Jurisprudence, which synthesized Roman law and Dutch customary law into a cohesive whole. In the eighteenth century, the reforming aspirations of Enlightenment rulers aligned with jurists’ desire to rationalize the law to produce comprehensive, systematic legal codes including Austria’s 1786 Code of Joseph II and Complete Civil Code of 1811, Prussia’s Complete Territorial Code of 1794, and France’s Civil Code (known as the Napoleonic Code) of 1804. Such codes, shaped by the Roman law tradition, are the models of today’s civil law systems.

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