George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” As an American who chose to pursue my legal career in London, I really enjoy considering legal issues from both an American and an English perspective, as I’ve done with Taylor Swift and defamation lawsuits, or the concept of celebrity “publicity rights”. But what about the differences in the legal system itself, or the education and training needed to become a lawyer? I’ve answered a few common questions below…
England and the United States are both “common law” jurisdictions. What does that mean and why does it matter?
Most legal systems are based on either Civil Code or Common Law. The system in which a lawyer practices can tell you a lot about their approach to their job, or legal philosophy more generally.
In Civil Law jurisdictions, which are also known as “Napoleonic” or “Roman” systems, the core principles are codified into a written collection of laws and procedures set out in the civil code. Lawyers are inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and it is the judge (or judges), who ask questions and demand evidence. In a civil law system, lawyers present arguments based on the evidence the court finds. The judge’s role is to establish the facts of the case and to apply the provisions of the applicable code.
Common Law, by contrast, puts great weight on court decisions, which are considered “law” with the same force of law as statutes. As such, common law courts have the authority to make law where no legislative statute exists, and statutes mean simply what courts interpret them to mean. In most scenarios, the two sides of a dispute argue before a neutral judge, who then makes a decision.
The United States, like most Commonwealth countries and former colonies, is an heir to the common law legal tradition of English law. Of course, certain practices traditionally allowed under English common law have been expressly outlawed by the American Constitution, such as bills of attainder and general search warrants. Practically speaking however, most Americans and Brits will have the same understanding of the roles of lawyers, trials, contracts, and much more.
Fun Fact: “Common law” derives its name from being common to all the King’s courts across England following the Norman Conquest of 1066.