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Introductory Remarks

Five categories were selected for the creation of this Website on World Legal Systems: Civil law, Common law, Customary law, Muslim law and Mixed law systems, the latter referring not to a single system but to a combination of systems. This categorization - and the admittedly imperfect classification of political entities resulting there from - calls for a few preliminary remarks.

The term "political entities" encompasses member States of the United Nations, as well as the few independent territories which are not part of it. It can also refer to political subdivisions of countries as well. Indeed, it seemed important to identify the legal systems of a number of non-independent territories (some of which even enjoy varying degrees of autonomy), either because their geographic location obscures their connection to the legal systems of distant countries (e.g. the French territories in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean or West Indies) or because they belong to a federal or other political structure, yet their legal system has acquired or maintained distinct characteristics within such structure (e.g. Quebec, which is a mixed law jurisdiction whose general law, at least in important areas pertaining particularly but not exclusively to private law, is essentially a product of codified Civil law while, in the rest of Canada, general law is essentially based on the Common law). It should be noted that the taking into account of these non-independent territories separately has sometimes created an obligation to break down some of the national population figures or to increase the apparent importance of the number of countries related to a given system. The drawbacks which could arise and prevent a correct interpretation of the different charts are diminished by the fact that clear reference to such territories, provinces or States is followed by the name of the State to which they are attached.

As for religious law systems, we have included only Muslim law because of its permanent, broadly-based nature. However we referred once to Jewish law to take into account the particularities of Israel's mixed legal system. Furthermore, some initially religious law systems have since lost their character and distinct status due to the fact that a number of their components have more or less been absorbed into customary or other legal systems.

Also, it must be pointed out that canon law is not a religious law system : it is a law inspired by religious dogma, but it is human in origin and belongs unquestionably to the Civil law family.

Customary law, which category also includes what is known as “Aboriginal laws” have not been highlighted in cases where, even though they may be used for certain means, they do not represent a key characteristic of the relevant political entity's legal system.

Upon reflection, we have ruled out the category of "Socialist law" whose inclusion, in the past, was unavoidable in certain classifications. True, despite recent political upheavals, Marxist-Leninist thought still plays a sometimes significant role in the legal organization of certain countries. But the criterion which governed the creation of a category of "Socialist law", as opposed to western law, was a material one, whereas on the whole we have given greater importance to the methodological and technical aspects of the legal systems, to legal concepts and to methods of developing and expressing law, without confining ourselves to superficially formal criteria.

Furthermore, you will note that the headings in the chapter entitled "Classification of Legal Systems and Corresponding Political Entities" refer to the legal systems in the plural rather than in the singular form (e.g. Civil law systems, Common law systems, Muslim law systems, Customary law systems and of course mixed law systems). Thus we wanted to account for the fact that each legal system (as a classification category) tends to acquire particular characteristics according to the territories and populations it serves. Need we be reminded that, despite their affiliation to the same legal family, there are significant differences between the positive laws of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, for example (Common law countries) and that the differences between the positive laws of France, Germany and Chile, for example (Civil law countries) are no less substantial!

In concluding it may be wise once again to emphasize the very modest objectives we have set ourselves with this information. Thus we have confined ourselves to categories which are easily identifiable for the international legal community. However, our attempts should not be construed as a rejection of classification efforts (e.g. those of Constantinesco, Zweigert and Koltz, Timsit and Glenn) which, though more scientific or more refined, would not have served our immediate purposes any better.

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Last updated: 2021.04.01