Civil law entails two distinct categories of meaning. It is used to reference Romano Germanic law, one of four broad forms of legal systems that presently are most practiced throughout the world. In this context, civil law is best under stood in juxtaposition to common (Anglo Saxon), religious (e.g., Islamic), and socialist law. Civil law systems are most widespread in the world. Their most central feature is the codification of law, an approach historically linked to the Justinian Code of ancient Rome, and that became characteristic of continental Europe.
The second fundamental connotation of civil law relates to the division of some legal systems into segments that address what are construed as distinct types or categories of legal problems. Such division is not universal, but reflects a larger philosophy of law, the authority underlying it, and the goals of social control. Islamic law, for example, does not distinguish civil matters from criminal. Instead, all behaviors are morally assessed from the framework of the Koran and the Sharia, identifying the word of God regarding how humans are to behave. Under this system the view is that law comes from God and cannot be compromised. Both Romano Germanic and common law traditions, however, view the state as having a vested interest in and authority over public issues such as crimes (which are offenses against the state or community at large), but not in regard to private disputes. The latter fall in the realm of civil law. In this vein, then, civil law refers to the segment of legal systems that addresses grievances between individual citizens, as opposed to conflicts that are theoretically between the state and individual citizens.
All law serves as a form of social control in the sense that it manages social conflict. All forms of law are also shaped by social forces. These points probably are most widely appreciated in the context of criminal law, but apply equally to civil law. Moreover, the way that laws control and are shaped have greater bearing on the civil realm because these cases impact far more people. Civil law governs social obligations across a vast array of human activity. It governs the nature and parameters of family relations such as marriage, divorce, child custody, adoption, provision of medical treatment to family members, and innumerable other domestic issues. Civil law governs privileges such as licensure to operate vehicles, to engage in certain occupations, to participate in sporting activities, the pursuit of education, eligibility for many financial benefits, ownership of property, and all other realms of human endeavor. It also provides the framework for determining which individuals have been wronged and how the damages are to be rectified. In short, civil law provides the rules and procedures for resolving conflicts between individuals over any and all matters within a society.
Civil or private law, as opposed to public law, is structured differently because it is presumed that public law is pitting individuals against a more powerful state. Within civil law the defendant is not accorded nearly as much protection because it is presumed that there is not such a dramatic power imbalance between the two sides to the conflict. Moreover, the state is empowered to take life or liberty, sanctions unavailable in private disputes. A single event, however, may have the potential to be jointly addressed by civil law (a plaintiff sues for civil damages) and criminal law (the state pursues criminal charges). Nevertheless, because it is so far reaching, civil law dramatically shapes the nature and quality of social life.
- Black, D. (1998) The Social Structure of Right and Wrong. Academic Press, San Diego.
- Calvi, J. V. & Coleman, S. (2000) American Law and Legal Systems. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
- Grana, S. J., Ollenburger, J. C., & Nicholas, M. (2002) The Social Context of Law. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
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