A recent answer laments the ostensible apparent lack of a “legal code.” But just what is a legal “code,” such as presumably the “U.S. CODE,” our various other countries’ so called “civil codes,” and is the U.K.’s statute book such a code? Why, it why not?

1 Answer 1


A legal code is a systemic collection of statutes

A legal code or code of law is a collection of various statutes on a topic (for example, criminal law, or environmental law), which organises and usually numbers the clauses of those statutes to create a "meta-statute" with everything all consolidated in one place.

These are the basis of law in civil law jurisdictions. They are far less common in common law countries because of the influence and effect of judge-made law. A simple, and therefore wrong, summary, is that statutes in civil law systems modify the legal code, which is then fixed until the next time it is changed by statute; but because both Parliament and judges make law in common law systems, there isn't a definitive code fixed for any period of time.

What common law jurisdictions do is codify the common law on a given topic. That is, they write a big Bill that collects all of the disparate statutes and case law together and repeals or abolishes the other statutes or case law to create a point-in-time Act that sets out the current state of the law. Judges then use this, and Parliament tries to keep it up to date with amendments. In the USA and Canada, such laws will be referred to as the "such-and-such code", but in other common law jurisdictions, they will tend to be referred to as the "such-and-such Act".

The English judge Sir Mackenzie Chalmers is renowned as the draftsman of the Bills of Exchange Act 1882, the Sale of Goods Act 1893 and the Marine Insurance Act 1906, all of which codified existing common law principles. The Sale of Goods Act was repealed and re-enacted by the Sale of Goods Act 1979 in a manner that revealed how sound the 1893 original had been. The Marine Insurance Act (mildly amended) has been a notable success, adopted verbatim in many common law jurisdictions.

Most of England's criminal laws have been codified, partly because this enables precision and certainty in prosecution. However, large areas of the common law, such as the law of contract and the law of tort remain remarkably untouched. In the last 80 years there have been statutes that address immediate problems, such as the Law Reform (Frustrated Contracts) Act 1943 (which, inter alia, coped with contracts rendered void by war), and the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999, which amended the doctrine of privity. However, there has been no progress on the adoption of Harvey McGregor's Contract Code (1993), even though the Law Commission, together with the Scots Law Commission, asked him to produce a proposal for the comprehensive codification and unification of the contract law of England and Scotland. Similarly, codification in the law of tort has been at best piecemeal, a rare example of progress being the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945.

  • 1
    The kind of act described is called a consolidation act in the UK. Interestingly, common law may or may not be included when consolidation acts are written. For example, it's notable how may common law offences there still are in England & Wales - not least murder and manslaughter, which one might expect to be defined in statute. Commented Dec 18, 2023 at 9:19

You must log in to answer this question.

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