What Is a Civil Code?

Renee Booker

Legal systems throughout the world can be divided into two general types of systems — civil law systems and common law systems. In a common law system, the law is essentially determined by the concept of stare decisis, or precedent. In a common law system, judges have a large part in making the law as they decide cases. In stark contrast to a common law system, civil law systems rely on a civil code to make laws. Many nations throughout the world use a civil code, including most European countries, many Latin American countries, and some Asian countries.

Louisiana's legal system is based on civil law.
Louisiana's legal system is based on civil law.

A civil code is essentially a system used to collect, write down, and codify laws within a legal system. In a traditional civil code, laws are broken down into three main categories — laws relating to persons, laws relating to things, and laws that have elements of both. More modern civil codes have elaborated on the traditional categories to include laws of inheritance, laws of the family, and other sub-categories. The idea behind a civil code is that anyone may find the legal answer to a question of law simply by researching the appropriate code section for the answer.

In practice, a civil code is not as easy to implement as once intended. The law is ever-evolving and constantly presents new issues and questions, making a practical use of a civil code somewhat complicated. Although the concept in a civil law system is that judges will merely implement the law, in reality, judges often need to interpret the law as well.

The United States is considered a common law legal system, modeled after the British common law system. Although many parts of the American legal system are codified in the form of civil code, such as the Federal Code of Civil Procedure, these codes are essentially just a convenient way to simplify laws that have been established as a result of the common law system used in the United States. One exception within the United States to the use of common law is found in Louisiana. Louisiana's state law is a true civil code and is modeled after the French Napoleonic Code as Louisiana was once a French territory.

In addition to Louisiana within the United States, most of western Europe and a number of Latin American countries still use a civil code legal system. The French province of Quebec in Canada also uses a civil law system. The majority of the countries that use civil law have systems modeled after either the early German code or the French Napoleonic code.

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