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Legal systems: common law and civil law

Different countries have very different laws, but where do they come from? Different countries have different systems in place for making and updating...Different countries have very different laws, but where do they come from?

Different countries have different systems in place for making and updating laws. The two main ones are common law and civil law.

Common law

Common law is the system used in England and Wales. It is mainly based on the idea of precedent: when a court makes a decision about a case, that decision becomes a part of the law of the country. For example, murder is not illegal in England because of a government-made law, but because of the decisions of judges in earlier murder cases.

However, it is possible for governments to add to or modify common law: for example, Acts of Parliament introduced a mandatory life sentence for murder, and removed a rule saying that the victim had to die within a year and a day of the attack for it to be murder.

As well as the UK, common law is used in many places that used to be part of the British Empire, such as India, Australia and the USA.

Civil law

Civil law is based on legislation – general, written laws made by the government. In this legal system, the decisions of judges do not affect the laws of a country.

Civil law is the most common legal system in the world: it is used in almost all of Europe, Asia and South America and in much of Africa. It is also used in the US state of Louisiana, although all the other states use common law.

The civil law system developed from Roman Law, the legal system used in the Roman Empire.

Other systems

Some countries do not use either of these systems. For example, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia have legal systems based on Islamic law, or sharia. Other countries use a mix of systems, blending civil and common law or incorporating religious law into one of the two main systems.

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