Source: A Brief Introduction to Law in Canada (Mar. 2017). p. 39 Bottom. Box 2.3.

"Common Law" and "Civil Law": Alternate Meanings

As we have seen, some legal expressions have different meanings in different contexts. It addition to referring to legal systems, the phrases "common law" and "civil law" can have other meanings, too.
  The phrase civil law is sometimes used as a synonym for private law—in other words, laws gov-erning the relationship between persons (as opposed to public law, which deals with the legal re-lationship between a state and its individual members). Private and public law are generally recognized distinctions in both common law and civil law systems (except perhaps in some so-cialist countries). Therefore, somewhat confusingly, there could be a reference to civil law (where the context means private law) and its application in a common law jurisdiction. Adding to the confusion is the fact that in many civil law countries, their civil codes are primarily concert*d with private, or civil, law matters as opposed to public law ones. Criminal law and other areas of pub-lic law are frequently dealt with in other "non-code" statutes. However, the key features of civil law systems—such as the inquisitorial approach of judges and the lack of precedent—usually apply to these legislated areas as well.
  The phrase common law, apart from its reference to the legal system that originated in England. can also refer to decisions by courts exercising their "common law" jurisdiction (used in contradis-tinction to decisions by courts exercising their "equitable" jurisdiction), and to case law generally (used in contradistinction to legislation, or enacted laws).

This polysemy of 'civil law' (e.g. our "civil-law" tag) can be easily untangled, if 'civil law' is restricted to mean only private law OR only continental law, or if 'civil law' is abandoned and overriden with the latter two terms.

So why hasn't it? This improvement could've been codified in England and Wales in 1999.


2 Answers 2


Basically, this is the difference between what I like to call "big C" Civil Law and "little c" civil law.

Big C Civil Law refers to the legal system used in much of mainland Europe is a legal system unto itself dating back to Roman Legal systems. Little c civil law refers to a branch of all legal systems where two parties have a legal dispute and one party initiates a lawsuit against the other. Since in the Americas, the two largest countries are both common Law (Canada and the United States) it's often understood by those audiences that "civil law" refers to the subset of Common Law dealing with lawsuits.

As a term, private law does not work in the United States as one is allowed to sue any combination of Local, State, and Federal Government for violations of law against private citizens, thus these are open to the public by matter of course (as are all legal cases at the trial stage... per-trial negotiations are not.).

  • Sorry, but how does this answer my question?
    – user6241
    Mar 12, 2018 at 20:54
  • " in the Americas, the two largest countries are both common Law (Canada and the United States)" Isn't the state of LA "Civil law," and Quebec as well?
    – Andy
    Apr 14, 2018 at 1:34

Because, as a matter of policy, English speakers don't regulate how their language is used. We have enough crimes without having to cite people for using a word that currently has more than one sense in one of those senses, when it is not profanity or a threat to anyone and rarely creates real confusion.

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