Civil Law

Civil Law

CIVIL LAW OF LOUISIANA – The Napoleonic Code

In Louisiana, we are different. Our culture, our food, our way of life and the importance we place on family. We are different in another way you may not have thought of, our legal system.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Napoleonic Code (French “Civil Law”) or Common Law but what does that mean?

To put it simply, each State has its own body of law. All but Louisiana use a system given to the English Colonies known as the “Common Law” while former French and Spanish colonies were given the “Civil Law”. These bodies of law both apply to non-criminal matters. Often times you will hear the Civil Law of Louisiana or Louisiana Civil Code called the “Napoleonic Code” for short. In reality as a former French and Spanish Colony, Louisiana’s law isn’t purely French but likely a mix of French, Spanish and now, American law.

Once upon a time, there was a clear distinction between England’s Common Law and the European “Civil Law”. The reason for this distinction was the basic origin of these bodies of law. In England, in the Middle-Ages, the law was not written but was instead based on the whim of the King or his ministers. To bring order to this system, the principle of “precedent” was developed. Essentially meaning that if this court ruled a particular way on a particular set of facts, they could generally be expected to rule the same way next time. However, the Civilian system is different. the Judge doesn’t “make” the law, he or she only interprets and applies it. Instead, the government makes the law in the form of a code or statutes. The Court’s role is to interpret the law the legislature gives them and apply it to the facts. Today, the distinction can be less clear. For example, the United States has a “Code” as does almost every other State and Louisiana has effectively begun to recognize precedent.

This Civil Law system originated with the Corpus Juris Civilis of Emperor Justinian of Rome introduced in 529 AD. Today, this system of law is in place in Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Province of Quebec, Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church and about 95 countries. Interestingly, despite sharing an island with England, Scotland does not share its Common Law system and has its own Scottish Civil Code.

Almost every European country and their former colonies have a civil law system. England and most of the countries it dominated or colonized, including most of Canada and most of the United States, have a common-law system. While these two systems are by far the most common, there are others: the hybrid “customary law” countries like Andorra and India and the Sharia Law countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

To add confusion, in the United States, the term civil law has two meanings. One meaning of civil law refers to a legal system prevalent in Europe that is based on written codes. Civil law in this sense is contrasted with the common-law system used in England and most of the United States, which relies on prior case law to resolve disputes rather than written codes. The second meaning of civil law refers to the body of laws governing disputes between individuals, as opposed to those governing offenses that are criminal.

So, next time you hear “Louisiana is different”, or “Napoleonic Code” you’ll know exactly what they mean. We are different, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.