What are the Three Legal Systems?

Every country on earth is governed by a legal system. The countless differences between legal systems across the world show that there are many forms which the law can take. However, most legal systems in use today can be grouped into three main types. These are civil law, common law, and religious law. Each type gives legal power to different authorities, but by understanding the legal system ourselves, we have the power to challenge their authority.


Civil Law


Civil law is the system used in most countries across the world, including Angola, Benin, and the Central African Republic. It was first used in the Roman Empire, before spreading throughout Europe. The main feature of civil law is codification. This is the use of written laws, called statutes, to govern society. These statutes can be changed. When this happens, it is called an amendment. However, they are often treated as if they are permanent. Judges decide the outcome of legal cases based on what is written in the statutes of their country. Lawyers who have expert knowledge of the statutes therefore have the power to interpret them and argue cases based on their own interpretation.


Common Law


Common law originated in England. It is now used in many English-speaking countries, such as the USA, and a few African countries, such as Sudan. The main feature of common law is precedent. This is using the results of past legal cases to judge future ones. This is why common law is sometimes known as case law. Judges have a lot of power in common law systems as their decisions impact the results of future cases.


Religious Law


Religious law is a legal system which bases its laws off the texts and teachings of a religion. The most popular use of religious law today is in some Muslim majority countries, where it is known as Sharia law. It is used in combination with civil law in countries across North Africa, including in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt. Sharia is based partly on the Quran and partly on the example set by the prophet Muhammad. Some countries use a more literal interpretation of Sharia than others. Religious leaders have legal power in countries which use religious laws, as they are trusted to interpret religious texts and teachings.


Knowledge is Power


The law can be confusing. Lawyers, judges, and religious leaders have the power to interpret the law. They therefore have the power to influence our lives. However, knowing which legal system is used in a country helps us understand who has legal power and where their power comes from. This knowledge gives us the power to challenge the authority of the law ourselves.



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