Most of Europe, Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia, and some African countries follow the civil law tradition. The common law system is found in the United Kingdom and its former colonies throughout the world. Although each nation has modified specific legal structures and practices, and many have unique historical nuances, there are general trends within the civil law world and across common law nations. The chart below broadly describes these features.

Judicial Role & Training

Civil Law

Common Law

Law schools largely teach through lectureLaw schools implement Socratic and skills-based methods
Career judges usually join the bench after completing a degree, additional professional training, and an internshipJudges are usually seasoned practitioners with a variety of previous experiences
Legislation is designed to cover every eventuality; no perceived need for extensive judicial interpretationJudicial interpretation is frequently required to apply law to specific situations
Paradigm of inquisitor: judges actively investigate and probes evidence/witnessesParadigm of umpire: judges preside over cases and makes rulings when necessary (see next section)
Role of Lawyers & Other Justice Sector Professionals

Investigating judge or prosecutor conducts bulk of criminal investigations

Case file is used as evidence in trial

Prosecutor/defender may request additional investigation of specific matters

Police conduct bulk of criminal investigation before turning it over to prosecutor 

Discovery process whereby prosecutor makes evidence available to defense, and defense may gather additional evidence

Prosecutor may be member of the judiciary; judge may be under the Ministry of Justice

  • Over course of professional career, may rotate between assignments as prosecutor and judge
Defense counsel zealous advocate for client

Judge-driven; judges are responsible for: 

  • calling and examining witnesses (no cross examination)
  • selecting experts

Lawyer-driven; lawyers are responsible for:

  • preparing, calling and examining witnesses (and cross examining)
  • selecting and retaining experts
  • making opening and closing statements
Specialized ExpertsSharp distinction between public and private law, with separate courts (and appeals processes) for each, e.g., civil, criminal, labor, administrativeMore recent trend: specialized courts for tax, IP, family law, etc.
Court Proceedings

Sitting judge can rely on written notes of testimony from investigation

When there is live testimony, presented as uninterrupted narrative

Preparation of witnesses generally forbidden

Oral testimony from investigation must be presented in court

Testimony elicited through questions posed to witness

Frequent preparation of witnesses by counsel

Free evaluation of evidence; most evidence admittedComplex rules of evidence, including exclusionary rules
Transcripts rare; judge or court secretary takes notes and submits summaryContemporaneous record taken by court reporter
Laypersons may be designated as lay judges/assessors and may join with judges in a mixed panelTrial by jury of laypersons
“Trial” often broken up into series of hearings over the course of weeks or monthsTrial is distinct and continuous proceeding
Sources of LawWritten codes may be a starting point, but codes and legislation are used extensivelyCase law as starting point
Traditional lack of stare decisisPrecedent; stare decisis
Decisions from other courts (e.g., other districts or nations) generally not persuasiveFrequent consideration of other courts’ decisions
Scholarly commentary frequently considered authoritativeScholarly commentary generally not considered authoritative
International law often incorporated automaticallyInternational law generally not incorporated automatically
Appellate ReviewLeave to appeal usually not required; frequent interlocutory appealsOne appeal as of right; leave to appeal often required for subsequent appeals
Issues of fact and law reviewed de novo on first appealOnly issues of law reviewed de novo; issues of fact have narrower standard of review
Additional evidence and legal issues often allowed on appealNo additional evidence allowed on appeal
Different judicial bodies hear different types of appeals (e.g., constitutional courts, criminal or civil panels within appellate court)Unified appellate courts hear most appeals
Judicial review of legislation may be restricted to constitutional court, or not permitted at allAll courts may review the constitutionality of legislation