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Comparison of systems of justice
in the UK, the US and France

Although criminals are treated more or less the same in all three countries, and in most cases can expect a similar punishment, their systems of justice are based on principles that are often profoundly different.

Below are some of the key differences.


UK and US

Civil law

Common law

Justice in France, as well as most other European countries, is based on a system of civil law. Justice in the UK and the US, as well as other English-speaking countries, is based on a system of common law.
In civil law systems:
  • laws are written down in a 'code';
  • laws are decided by legislators (in parliament);
  • judges refer only to the written code when deciding cases.
In common law systems:
  • some of the laws are decided by legislators and written down in a 'code', but
  • some of the laws are based on customs, which means that things are against the law and can be punished because they have been punished by judges in the past.
Civil law systems, and France's in particular, usually go back to the Napoleonic Code laid down in 1804, although they are ultimately inherited from Roman law. Common law systems go back to the legal systems that developed in medieval England. Before the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066, England had no centralized legal system. Judges acted independently according to regional traditions, and these traditions were kept by following generations.



Judges are called on to interpret the law, especially when new laws are being applied for the first time, or when new cases arise that haven't been covered in the past. Such decisions are said to 'faire jurisprudence' because they offer an interpretation that will influence future legal decisions.

But the role of these prior judgements is less significant in civil law systems where the judge's role is generally considered to be to apply the law as it is written, with the assumption that the law in most cases is sufficiently clear in itself.

Common law systems rely on the principle of precedent, which means that if a court has already made a legal decision about an issue, judges must respect that decision in later rulings. Judges can only apply a different ruling if a) they can demonstrate that the issue is somehow different from the precedent, or b) they belong to a higher court than that which gave the original ruling.

This means that the hierarchy of courts in the legal system is important. The US Supreme Court, for example, is the highest court in the country: any decisions it makes 'binds' all other courts in the country, who have to follow these decisions. When it ruled in 1973 that the 14th Amendment, which guarantees people's privacy, should be interpreted as guaranteeing a woman's right to abortion, this meant that no other court could rule that a woman didn't have a right to abortion (and, because the Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, no legislative body could pass a law against a woman's right to an abortion). This decision can only be changed by the Supreme Court itself.

An example of the role of precedent: marital rape

Another example of the role of precedent is the definition of rape in England. In the 17th century, Judge Sir Matthew Hale summarized one aspect of rape by saying that in marrying a man, a wife gives her consent to sexual intercourse as long as they remain married, and that a husband could not therefore be convicted of raping his wife. The comments, the earliest written statements on the subject of marital rape, were considered authoritative for many years.

During the 20th century, though, attitudes towards women's rights changed beyond recognition, and it became clear that this interpretation of a wife's consent no longer reflected the values of modern society. Between 1988 and 1991 there were three cases in which charges of rape against husbands were rejected because of the historical 'marital rape exemption'. In 1991, a fourth case was appealed all the way to the House of Lords, which ruled that the exemption had "no useful purpose to serve today in the law of rape" and so was no longer valid. (Source: [1991] UKHL 12)

Since the House of Lords was Britain's highest court at the time, this new precedent (an example of common law) was binding on all other courts in the country. Since then, acts of Parliament (examples of civil law) have been passed which formalise the definition of rape and eliminate this exemption.