There are several Statutory Interpretation rules which judges within the United Kingdom must follow when trying criminal cases under the Common Law system. These rules are used to prevent laws from only being interpreted literally, which could cause unfair verdicts and criminals escaping justice.

I was curious if there were any Statutory Interpretation rules for the various Civil-Legal-Systems used in different countries around the world.

My understanding is that there is not, as the laws themselves are usually easy to follow along, and everything is covered in the same place. There also appears to be less flexibility for judges in those systems.

1 Answer 1


I was curious if there were any Statutory Interpretation rules for the various Civil-Legal-Systems used in different countries around the world.

My understanding is that there is not

Your understanding is wrong.

Civil law Systems have statutory interpretation principles and they are very similar to statutory interpretation principles of common law jurisdictions, although there are a few fairly small differences.

One rule of statutory interpretation that is found in civil law systems, but not in common law systems is that if a statute says nothing about something, then the law does says nothing about it, unless this is a logical impossibility. But this is just one statutory interpretation principle of dozens of statutory interpretation principles. Most other rules of statutory interpretation are found in both systems and are more or less identical.

In Civil law systems statutory interpretation principles are usually articulated in the "general part" of a civil code as a whole, and of particular parts of it, and in legal treatises regarding the laws to be interpreted, written by distinguished law professors. Case law, particularly from a highest court in the court system, also matters as guidance for statutory interpretation, in practice, even though the concept of case law is often nominally disavowed in the "general part" of the civil code.

the laws themselves are usually easy to follow along, and everything is covered in the same place. There also appears to be less flexibility for judges in those systems.

This is not true. It is a myth. Judges in civil law systems and judges in common law legal systems have similar amounts of flexibility in statutory interpretation.

Every legally authoritative written statement in every legal system necessarily calls for interpretation to some degree. Judges and lawyers apply the law to facts in the cases before them by interpreting those laws.

There are always gray areas and questions of interpretation in some fact patterns.

If anything, civil codes are often vague in important areas like tort law (i.e. obligations for civil wrongs not arising in contract, such as legal liability in an accident involving strangers who have no contracts with each other and do not commonly own property).

Every legal system has some clear cases that afford judges little discretion (and in legal education, law professors in common law countries tend to focus more on the hard and close cases to develop legal reasoning while assuming that students can figure out the "black letter rules" of the law without direct instruction on them, while law professors in civil law countries tend to focus more on learning the "black letter rules of law" articulated in easy cases and clear fact patterns).

But every legal system also has myriad circumstances where judges have to exercise thoughtful judgment to resolve a dispute given a particular set of facts presented to the judge.

In civil code countries statutes tend to be comprehensive*, so that every legal proposition needs to have a foundation in the code rather than being supplemented by free standing legal principles with no link to codified law. The governing interpretive principle is that if a statute says nothing about something that the law does say nothing about something unless that is a logical impossibility.

  • I say "tend to be" because not all statutory law in civil law countries is found in comprehensive civil codes. Some is found in more common law style non-codified statutes that are interpreted not against a background of common law principles, but against the background of legal principles articulated in comprehensive civil and criminal and commercial codes. For example, there might be a statute that imposes a stand alone curfew and noise requirement in urban neighborhoods that contains only the essentials of those requirements and is interpreted against the background of general civil code principles of property rights and tort law.

In contrast, common law systems start with a foundation of free standing legal principles articulated in case law that statutes tweak and modified with greater or lesser degrees of completeness.

Even when, for example, a statute in a common law country makes an affirmative statement about the status of after acquired title in property when one has purported to convey it to someone already, in a common law country that doesn't preclude the possibility that the statute is supplemented by additional common law principles in circumstances that the statute doesn't squarely address.

But, some key provisions in civil codes have as much of an interpretive gloss surrounding them as, for example, key provisions of the Bill of Rights in U.S. law do.

Similarly, many civil law legal provisions articulate "standards" rather than "rules", stating, perhaps, that you shall not drive at "an unreasonable speed" under the circumstances on an autobahn, which requires more discretionary application to particular facts and circumstances of a case, rather than stating that you may not drive "in excess of XXX km/hr," in a more familiar speed limit requirement that is a prototypical legal "rule."

Also, in common law systems, in part because there is a need to clarify the law for use in future cases, legal reasoning is often more clearly spelled out in a written legal opinion resolving a case, while in a civil law system, where creating case law for posterity is not a priority, rulings resolving cases often articulate their legal reasoning much less fully. So, understanding the process of statutory interpretation that has taken place in a civil law decision is often much more challenging when relying on written court rulings alone.

The distinctions in statutory interpretation are explored at greater length, for example, in a 2015 law review article with the following abstract:

This article attempts to identify how differently a common law lawyer in a Westminster system and a civil law lawyer in France might interpret statutory provisions. The key to understanding the difference is how the doctrine of separation of powers operates within each of their jurisdictions. There is a considerable difference in this respect. Common law lawyers and judges are expected to supplement statutory law by reference to the common law when this is intended or is needed to make sense of the statute. French civil lawyers, on the other hand, are expressly denied this role, being confined solely to the elucidation of the legislative intent. They are prohibited from filling any ‘gaps’ in the law simply because there are no gaps and because the statute is intended to be comprehensive. Despite the fact that there is a considerable difference in this respect, the principles of statutory interpretation bear a remarkable resemblance. Yet, in their application, differences are likely to emerge because of the starkly contrasting roles of the judiciary. But any assessment of that difference is hard to measure in view of the brevity of civil law judgments, particularly in France.

A 1996 law review article also underscores the differences between countries in the extent to which their legal reasoning is explicitly articulated, which makes discerning of the rules of statutory interpretation in a civil law system more challenging because the opinions are less transparent on that point. It then leads with a couple of other provocative examples:

As with tourism, one of the pleasures of comparative law is the collection of amusing trivia. Consider, for example, the plight of judges in the lower French courts. Their opinions are rarely published, and even then, only at the sufferance of the editors of the law journals. (Imagine if federal court of appeals judges had to submit their work to the third-year students who edit our journals.) But then, French judicial opinions themselves are rather different from those elsewhere. We are told of a comparative study of three judicial opinions on the same subject from courts in France, Germany, and the United States. The French decision had three hundred words, the German two thousand, and the American majority opinion alone had eight thousand. It is little wonder, however, that French opinions are so brief, for the highest civil court in France decides twenty thousand appeals annually.

Besides brevity, the French judge has other constraints to worry about. In France, a judge who refuses to decide a case because the law is silent or obscure is subject to criminal prosecution. Stringent constraints on opinion writing are not unknown elsewhere. In Italy, a statute forbids judges to cite law professors. In Scotland, however, it is apparently permissible to cite the work of academics, but only if they are dead-though it is apparently considered good form to plagiarize the work of living scholars. And so on, with each country from Finland to Argentina having some charming quirk of its own.

Another pleasure of travel is the discovery of unexpected familiarities-things that one had thought were distinctively American but turn out to be international. Such, for example, is the "absurdity" rule, which traces its roots in American law to the famous Holy Trinity case. This rule allows a court to avoid the literal meaning of a statute in order to avoid a bizarre result. It turns out that this rule is a staple of statutory interpretation everywhere. The leading French case is particularly droll, involving a statute that, if read literally, would have prohibited passengers from getting on or off of a train except when it was moving. Thus, in France as in America, the court must inquire further into the intention of the legislature when a literal meaning would produce a nonsensical result.

  • 1
    That was a nice answer, but please reword the following as it makes no sense: The governing interpretive principle is that if a statute says nothing about something that the law does say nothing about something unless that is a logical impossibility. Sep 8, 2022 at 13:27
  • 1
    @ohwilleke: I too am having difficulty parsing that sentence. Could you elaborate, or insert some punctuation? Sep 8, 2022 at 20:30
  • 1
    @user5623335 It can be assumed that there is no law without statutory basis in a typical civil law system. A typical common law court can find a rental contract unconscionable based on common law principles and refuse to enforce it even if the statutes enacted by the legislature in such jurisdiction does not explicitly allow annulation of the contract for unfairness. Such decision can contain no mention of statutes at all but instead cite past court cases self-evidently as part of the law of the land.
    – xngtng
    Sep 9, 2022 at 13:27
  • 1
    Yet a typical civil law court would have to cite the civil code (or another statute) for the legal basis providing for invalidity of contract due to e.g. unconscionable or unfair terms (e.g. fedlex.admin.ch/eli/cc/27/317_321_377/en#art_21). Absence of such clauses in statutes means lack of power from the court to invalidate the contract for that reason since the law is silent on the issue.
    – xngtng
    Sep 9, 2022 at 13:33
  • 1
    @user5623335 In all legal systems, if there is no law about something you can get away with it (this is one of the shared principles of statutory interpretation). In civil law systems, all law ultimately traces back to a statute. In common law legal systems, some law derives only from previously decided case precedents (although there are authoritative scholarly summaries of the case law in a statute-like format calls the "Restatements of Law" that recap the lion's share of the common law).
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 9, 2022 at 16:47

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .