Continental law/Kontinentaleuropäisches Recht

Like common law (of which more shortly), civil law is a term with more than one meaning.

1. civil law in contrast to criminal law: private law (Zivilrecht)

2. civil law in contrast to common law: a legal system based on Roman law (ius civilis – römisches Recht, kontinentaleuropäisches Recht)

The second meaning can confuse people who’ve never heard of it. One can call it Roman law, but that’s confusing too, because it might mean the law of ancient Rome rather than that of systems based on it.

Hence we have the relatively rare term continental law. It has the advantage of being comprehensible.

Now, Germany and France recently joined together in the ongoing campaign to show the world that civil law is best, and everyone ought to come to the German and French courts and draft German and French contracts and everything will be better.

There was an article to this effect in the FAZ on February 1.

Verglichen mit dem angelsächsischen Recht leidet das kontinentaleuropäische Recht unter einem Wahrnehmungsproblem: In den letzten 20 Jahren wurde es immer wieder als unflexibel, bürokratisch, wirtschaftsfeindlich und teuer dargestellt. Zu Unrecht, wie sich bei näherer Betrachtung zeigt. Die juristischen Berufsorganisationen Deutschlands und Frankreichs haben daher eine „Initiative für kontinentaleuropäisches Recht“ gegründet.

(Compared with common law, continental law suffers from a problem of perception: in the past twenty years it has repeatedly been described as inflexible, bureaucratic, inimical to business and expensive. Wrongly, as a closer look shows. The professional lawyers’ organizations of Germany and France have therefore initiated an ‘Initiative for Continental Law’.)

Note the use of angelsächsisches Recht for common law. I recall an employer wanting to describe me as an expert in Anglo-Saxon law, but I felt too young for it.

The arguments for continental law as opposed to common law appear compelling (in view of the authors –

Henri Lachmann (Präsident der Fondation pour le droit continental), Rechtsanwalt Axel C. Filges (Präsident der Bundesrechtsanwaltskammer), Notar Dr. Tilman Götte (Präsident der Bundesnotarkammer), Rechtsanwalt Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ewer (Präsident des Deutschen Anwaltvereins), Notar Dr. Oliver Vossius (Präsident des Deutschen Notarvereins), Oberstaatsanwalt Christoph Frank (Vorsitzender des Deutschen Richterbundes)

they would say that, wouldn’t they?):

codified, so law is easy to find
application is predictable
procedural law is efficient and proceedings are cheap
good at protecting property
hmm – number 5 is ‘Nicht zuletzt ist kontinentales Recht ein Recht der Freiheit. Effizient, kostengünstig, sicher’ – a law of freedom? I think we’re getting into advertising language here.

The article expands on this. Thus if you use the common law, you have to burrow your way through the decisions of many centuries, whereas continental law, with its codes, gives you a ‘checklist’ (a new way of looking at the BGB, or do they mean the French, Austrian or Swiss civil codes?). I take the point about contracts backed up by codified law being simpler and shorter. And about a reliable system of registration.

What’s more, the article continues, continental law cannot be reduced to economics. It has a political mission.

Unser bürgerliches Recht haben sich Bürger gegen absolutistische Fürsten und Feudalherren in Jahrhunderten erkämpft.

I think the French got the upper hand here!

This initiative has a brochure, and I downloaded it in German and English at I expect there’s a French version too. This is the related site.

One exciting bit of the brochure is the map of the world. It shows, in mustard yellow, ‘Continental law and mixed legal systems strongly influenced by continental law’ and in blue ‘Other legal systems’. That blue almost fades into the sea. We can see how huge the continental law countries are – they include Louisiana and Quebec. Greenland is pretty big. Then there’s the whole of Russia, China, and nearly all of South America – all great places to get your simple legal contracts backed up by a reliable code, of course. It says ‘Continental law is the prevailing law for two-thirds of the world’s population.’

There is more to be said on this, of course. Probably a big reason for the ‘Dornröschenschlaf’ (it’s a Sleeping Beauty) of continental law is the lack of a common language that isn’t English.

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