The mixed legal system in the Philippines includes elements of civil, common, customary, and Islamic law. Legal pluralism in the Philippines can be attributed to the traditions and practices of indigenous communities, as well as the influences of foreign occupying powers: Spain (1565–1898) and the United States (1898–1946).
Before Spanish occupation, there were no national laws or formal legal institutions governing the indigenous communities of the Philippines. The Spanish introduced both: a series of codes and audiencias (royal courts). This colonial influence persists, with some deeming the Civil Code of the Philippines (1949) an English version of the Codigo Civil (1889).
Spain ceded the Philippine Islands to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War in 1898. The U.S. occupation influenced the development of the mixed Philippine legal system, relying on existing Spanish institutions and introducing common law practices and American-style courts. For example, in 1899, U.S. authorities reformed the the Audiencia in Manila—an institution that served as the country’s highest court with additional non-judicial functions—and appointed Filipinos and Americans to serve as judges. In 1901, the Audiencia in Manila was replaced with the Supreme Court of the Philippines, an entity limited to primarily judicial functions.
In addition, American officials were responsible for judicial selection, and the Supreme Court of the United States was given appellate jurisdiction over Philippine Supreme Court cases involving U.S. interests and implicating Philippine constitutional law. This administrative relationship ended in the 1940s, after America relinquished its control of the islands and worked with Filipinos to create a framework for an independent Philippine government.
Examples of U.S. Influence Over Philippine Law
Criminal Procedure in the Philippines —The U.S. introduced new rules of criminal procedure including habeas corpus, the right to counsel in criminal cases, plea bargaining, and bail.
The Philippine Bill of Rights —The drafters of the 1935 Philippine Constitution—esteemed Filipino politicians, educators, jurists, etc.—incorporated a U.S.-style Bill of Rights into Philippine organic law, pursuant toThe Philippine Independence Act of 1934.
Customary Law in the Philippines
Almost twenty percent of the Philippine population is indigenous, including more than 100 etho-linguisitic groups with different languages, customs, and customary law regimes. Indigenous people are expressly protected by the Philippine Constitution.The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 affirmed the rights of indigenous peoples and their cultural communities, enshrining the international legal concept of “free, prior informed consent” with respect to cultural development and land rights.
Customary law is enforced in many areas of the Philippines. For example, the Cordillera Autonomous Region is home to many indigenous groups such as the Kalinga people, whose clans have a peace pact system called bodong. Bodong is a multi-step, communal process and serves as a type of alternative dispute resolution linking tribes and regions together to stymie conflict. Kalinga people tend to solve their issues through bodong rather than formal legal proceedings.
Islamic Law in the Philippines
The Philippines is also home to ethno-linguistic Muslim groups called the Moro people, who inhabit Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan.
Islam predates Christianity on the Philippine archipelago by 200 years. The Sultunate of Sulu—a powerful Muslim state established in the 15th century—outlasted Spanish colonialism until U.S. occupation and assimilation efforts led to its dissolution in the 1900s. Incorporation of Filipino Muslims into the greater Philippine Republic continued through the country’s independence. The Code of Muslim Personal Laws—a collection of Islamic Law regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance—was enacted in 1977, and a Phillippine Shari’ah court system was established within the Philippine legal system.
The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region
Today, Muslim minority rights in the Philippines intersect with indigenous rights. There is a Muslim autonomous region, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The Bangsamoro Organic Law (2018) provides that justice within the region should be dispensed in accordance with the Philippine Constitution, Shari’ah, and customary law. Shari’ah specifically applies to all cases where both parties are Muslim, although it may apply in cases where a non-Muslim submits to the jurisdiction of a Shari’ah court. Non-Muslim indigenous peoples within the BARMM may abide by their traditional justice systems. In accordance with The Code of Muslim Personal Laws, which is applicable to the region, the President of the Philippines appoints judges to the Bangsamoro Shari’ah courts. The Philippine Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the Shari’ah High Court, promulgates its rules, and appoints and oversees Shari’ah court personnel.
The Sandiganbayan (“People’s Advocate”) is a specialized court with jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases involving graft, corrupt practices, and related offenses commited by public servants and employees. It is the oldest anti-corruption court in the world. Established in the 1970s—an era of political crisis and martial law during the Marcos regime—the Sandiganbayan was originally conceived as an “ombudsman” with special investigatory and disciplining powers. Eventually, it was transformed into a specialized anti-graft court to which the Tanodbayan (Ombudsman of the Philippines) has exclusive authority to bring cases. High-profile decisions of the Sandiganbayan span numerous political controversies, including the the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses and the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr.