A legal system is the framework of rules, procedures, and institutions that a community uses to interpret and enforce their laws. A legal system is binding on all legal disputes within its jurisdiction.
There is no uniform legal system across the globe. Each jurisdiction uses its own legal system. The type of legal system a jurisdiction uses will have a significant impact on the application of the law. What legal system a jurisdiction uses will dictate, among other things:
- What laws will govern a given case, be it precedent, statutes, or community customs
- The role of the judge
- The role of attorneys
- The rights of the accused
- The standard of evidence
- What parties have the burden of proof
- Who has the authority to decide cases, be they judges, juries, legislators, religious leaders, or community elders
The U.S. Department of Justice categorizes different legal systems into four main types of legal systems: common law, civil law, religious law, and customary law systems, with the latter two being exceedingly rare. Within each type of legal system, there is considerable variation based on precedent and local practices. There is also considerable overlap between these four categories, as many jurisdictions employ “hybrid” legal systems that reflect aspects of two or more legal systems.
The United States, like most former British colonies, uses a form of the common law system. A purely common law system is created by the judiciary, as the law comes from case law, rather than statute. Thus, a common law system has a strong focus on judicial precedent, stare decisis, and the rule of law.
However, most of the world uses a form of the civil law system. A pure civil law system is governed by statutes, rather than by case law. In a civil law system, the judge takes a more active role in the investigation. Civil law, sometimes called Napoleonic law, is found across Europe, and territories that were once European colonies. Belgium, the Netherlands, Mauritius, Italy, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa, Spain and Latin America all use some form of civil law.
Many countries employ legal systems that are influenced by both civil and common law. For example, South Africa and Sri Lanka have legal systems based on the older uncodified civil law of Holland. However, their long contacts with Britain mean that their public law and systems of court procedure owe much to common law. Other examples include Louisiana and Quebec, which use civil law on the subnational level, but are subject to a common law system for federal law.
In common usage, the term “legal system” may also be used as a metonymy to refer to the judiciary as a whole. For instance, if an activist accuses the legal system of bias against a protected group, they are unlikely to be referring to problems with common law. They are more likely referring to specific problems within the judicial branch.
[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]