October 25


Understanding the Differences: Common Law vs Civil Law | Podcast 043

4 Legal English Podcast | Episode 043


Welcome back to the 4 Legal English Podcast, your go-to source for enhancing your Legal English skills and deepening your understanding of the Common Law and its intricacies. In today's episode, we delve into a subject of paramount importance, not just for legal professionals but for anyone interested in the world of law and justice. We will explore the fundamental contrasts between two prominent legal systems: Common Law and Civil Law.

As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, lawyers are often presented with cases that transcend borders, involving multiple legal systems. It is essential for legal practitioners, particularly non-native English speakers, to grasp the differences between these systems. In this episode, we'll elucidate why comprehending these distinctions is vital, touching on the uniqueness of each system, their shared characteristics, and the challenges faced by those who navigate this dynamic legal terrain.

After you listen to this episode, test your knowledge by taking the quiz below!

You can listen to the 4 Legal English Podcast here, or anywhere where you can find podcasts!

Common Law v. Civil Law

Definition and Brief History of Common Law and Civil Law Legal Systems

To embark on this journey, let's first establish a solid foundation by understanding the definitions and historical underpinnings of these two legal giants.

Common Law: This system originated in England and later spread its influence far and wide, including to the United States. What sets it apart is its reliance on judicial decisions and legal precedents. Instead of rigid statutes, Common Law focuses on case law and the doctrine of stare decisis, which mandates that courts follow the precedent set by prior similar cases. This flexibility allows judges to make rulings based on individual circumstances, ensuring that the law remains adaptive and versatile.

Civil Law: With its roots in ancient Roman law, the Civil Law system serves as the foundation for many legal systems across continental Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. It is characterized by a comprehensive set of written codes and statutes, emphasizing legal theory and doctrine. Civil Law tends to be more prescriptive than Common Law, with judges interpreting and applying the law directly, rather than creating it through precedent.

Understanding these definitions is crucial, as the choice between Common Law and Civil Law often depends on historical, cultural, and societal factors. Each system comes with its own merits and demerits, making it essential for lawyers to be well-versed in both.

Major Similarities between Common Law and Civil Law Legal Systems

While Common Law and Civil Law differ in their origins and methodologies, they share significant similarities:

  • Written Laws: Both systems rely on written laws and legal codes to guide their legal practices. Civil Law systems often consolidate these laws into a comprehensive civil code, while Common Law systems usually find them in statutes enacted by legislatures.
  • Legal Precedent: Despite the distinction, both systems acknowledge the importance of legal precedent. In Civil Law systems, precedent is considered persuasive but not binding, whereas in Common Law systems, it holds binding authority over lower courts.
  • Hierarchy of Courts: Both systems feature a hierarchical structure of courts, each possessing its jurisdiction and authority. The highest court in each system is responsible for interpreting and applying the law, ensuring uniformity and consistency.
  • Specialized Legal Professions: In both systems, specialized legal professions like lawyers, judges, and legal experts play a pivotal role. They are trained to interpret and apply the law in their respective systems.

These shared characteristics emphasize that while the methods may differ, the ultimate objective of achieving justice and fairness remains constant.

Major Differences between Common Law and Civil Law Legal Systems

Now, let's explore the major differences that make these systems unique and which every legal professional should be aware of:

  • Role of Judges: In Common Law systems, judges possess the authority to interpret and create law through their case decisions. These rulings become legal precedent, binding on lower courts. Conversely, Civil Law systems rely more on codified laws and statutes enacted by legislatures, placing less emphasis on judicial precedent.
  • Flexibility: Common Law systems tend to be more adaptable and flexible, allowing judges to create new law through their decisions to meet evolving circumstances. In contrast, Civil Law systems are often more structured, with less room for judges to interpret and develop the law.
  • Reliance on Written Laws: Civil Law systems are typically codified, with comprehensive codes covering all areas of law. Common Law systems, on the other hand, rely less on written laws and more on judicial precedent.
  • Emphasis on Legal Scholars: Common Law systems place a significant emphasis on legal scholars and the development of legal doctrine. In contrast, Civil Law systems prioritize the interpretation and application of existing legal codes and statutes.

These distinctions may appear subtle, but they have profound implications for legal practice and outcomes in various jurisdictions. Lawyers practicing in Common Law systems must navigate the complexities of legal precedent, while those in Civil Law systems must have a deep understanding of legal codes and statutes.

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Challenges Faced by Non-Native English Speaking Lawyers

Non-native English speaking lawyers encounter distinct challenges when practicing in legal systems different from their own. These include:

  • Understanding Legal Documents: Legal documents can be intricate and laden with technical legal jargon, posing difficulties for accurate interpretation and informed decision-making.
  • Communication Barriers: Effective communication with clients, colleagues, and judges is essential for building strong cases and representing clients effectively. Non-native English speakers may struggle with accents, idioms, and other linguistic nuances.
  • Navigating Legal Systems: Different legal systems come with their own rules and procedures. Non-native English speaking lawyers must invest time to become familiar with these processes to avoid costly mistakes or delays.
  • Risk of Mistakes: Errors in understanding legal concepts, misinterpreting documents, or communication blunders can have severe consequences for a case. These risks are particularly pronounced for non-native English speakers.


In an increasingly interconnected world, understanding the dichotomy between Common Law and Civil Law is more critical than ever. It equips non-native English speaking lawyers to be more effective advocates for their clients and enriches the legal profession as a whole.

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We appreciate your continued support and look forward to having you with us in the next episode of the 4 Legal English Podcast.


Here is a list of lexicon words from the script "Understanding the Differences: Common Law vs Civil Law" along with their definitions:

  1. Codified: (adjective) Arranged and recorded systematically in a written code or set of laws. In the context of legal systems, it refers to laws and rules that are written down in a comprehensive code.
  2. Doctrine: (noun) A set of principles or beliefs that form the basis of a particular theory, policy, or system. In law, it often refers to established legal principles and theories.
  3. Hierarchy: (noun) A system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority. In legal systems, it relates to the structure of courts and their levels of authority.
  4. Judicial Precedent: (noun) A legal decision or judgment that serves as a reference for subsequent similar cases. In Common Law systems, it's a fundamental principle where past court decisions guide future rulings.
  5. Jurisdiction: (noun) The official power to make legal decisions and judgments, often based on geographical boundaries or subject matter. Jurisdiction determines which court has authority over a specific case.
  6. Legal Jargon: (noun) Complex and specialized language used in the legal field that may be difficult for non-lawyers to understand. It includes terms, phrases, and concepts specific to the law.
  7. Legal Precedent: (noun) A previous legal decision or case that serves as an authoritative example or guide when deciding similar future cases.
  8. Non-native English Speaking Lawyers: (noun phrase) Lawyers whose first language is not English and may face language-related challenges when practicing law in an English-speaking jurisdiction.
  9. Prescriptive: (adjective) Dictating or imposing rules, regulations, or behaviors in a clear and authoritative manner. In the context of legal systems, Civil Law systems are often described as more prescriptive due to their reliance on written codes.
  10. Stare Decisis: (noun) A Latin term meaning "to stand by things decided." It's a legal doctrine that obligates courts to follow and adhere to the precedents established in prior decisions.
  11. Written Codes: (noun phrase) Comprehensive and organized collections of laws and regulations that are put into writing, forming the basis of legal systems such as the Civil Law system.

These words should be beneficial for ESL students seeking to understand the differences between Common Law and Civil Law legal systems and the challenges faced by non-native English speaking lawyers in navigating these systems.

Resources for Further Learning

Expanding your knowledge of legal systems is a lifelong pursuit, and these resources will serve as valuable companions on your journey.

In the legal world, knowledge is power. Understanding the nuances of Common Law and Civil Law can be your key to unlocking new opportunities and achieving greater success in your legal career. Stay tuned for more insightful episodes from the 4 Legal English Podcast, your trusted companion in the world of Legal English.

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Civil Law Legal System, Common Law, UK Legal System, US Legal System

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