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The Common Law and Civil Law Traditions, from The Robbins Collection, School of Law (Boalt Hall), University of California at Berkley


Speaking only for myself as a paralegal, I didn’t get a course on the common law and it’s origins in paralegal school. I was fortunate enough to audit the Legal History course at a nearby law school taught my then boss, the Hon. Marian P. Opala, while he was a Justice at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. I remember being grateful that I did not have to complete the tough major exercise for the course! If you have an interest in researching, writing, and reading the law, you will enjoy it more with an understanding of common law, where it came from, how it evolved, and what it means today. Happy reading! -CCE

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. . . .