When you live in one country your entire life—or even for just a few years—you begin to feel accustomed to how its justice system works. In the United States, for example, there are two types of legal cases: criminal and civil. In addition, all defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty and have the right to a fair trial. Many Americans consider these and other tenets of our legal system so intrinsic and essential that they might also think them universal. But that’s not always the case. 

So, how do legal systems abroad contrast with the American justice system? 

Today, we’re comparing the essential components that form legal systems worldwide so we can understand how the American approach to justice compares to other countries around the globe. 

Civil vs. Common Law: What Are They and Who Uses Them? 

There are two main types of legal systems used around the world: civil and common law. Below, we discuss the biggest distinctions between the two along with the geographical regions where they’re employed. 

Civil Law 

Civil law has its origins in ancient Rome, dating back to 450 B.C. Originally, it consisted of a general code of laws for its citizens based on past traditions. Today, the concept of civil law involves a written constitution with specific codes and statutes that protect people’s rights and duties. Many countries in Central and South America, as well as most of Central and Eastern Europe and some East Asian countries, follow the civil law system. 

The biggest difference between civil and common law revolves around how each system crafts and carries out its laws. Civil law relies on written statutes created by the lawmakers of a country. In other words, the people who work for the government make the rules, and the people of the country follow those guidelines. 

Common Law 

Common law began as a British tradition dating back to the 12th century. Unlike civil law, this legal system embraces precedent rather than statutes. A precedent is an example set by previous court decisions. So, as new cases are introduced, judges defer to past cases to help inform and make their future decisions. 

For example, let’s say your friend is suing her neighbor for roof damages caused by the house fire next door. The judge on your friend’s case may look at the resolutions in similar past cases to determine how to make a fair ruling. 

Since its inception, common law has spread to North America (including the U.S.) and many other former British colonies, including Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom. 

Nuances Between Legal Systems in the U.S. and Abroad 

Apart from being rooted in either civil or common law, there are a few other differences between the American justice system and those of other countries. 

Adversarial vs. Inquisitorial Systems 

The adversarial and inquisitorial systems are two different approaches used to conduct trials in court cases. Below, we differentiate between the two: 

  • Adversarial System 
    This approach is often used in common law countries, like the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It consists of using two opposing legal parties, the prosecution and the defense, to present a case in front of the judge (and possible jury). In an adversarial system, each attorney is responsible for gathering evidence and presenting those findings to the judge. The judge’s role is neutral, ensuring that the defendant is given a fair trial. 
  • Inquisitorial System 
    In contrast, the inquisitorial system is frequently used in civil law countries like Spain, Germany, and many others around the world. The judge uses a more hands-on approach in investigating each case to help uncover the truth. Unlike the adversarial system, judges also gather evidence, question witnesses, and complete many other responsibilities that are normally left to lawyers in the United States. 

The Death Penalty 

More than 70% of the world’s countries have discontinued capital punishment. Whether a country permits the death penalty goes beyond civil and common law. Some countries that fall under each legal system maintain that capital punishment is a method of punishment that deters other people from committing similar crimes. Other countries, however, consider it a violation of human rights, especially when there’s no guarantee that the accused individual was guilty of the crime. 

While many of the United States’ allies have abolished the death penalty, some states within the U.S. still allow capital punishment for crimes of a serious nature, like murder or genocide. Some of the other countries that also currently enforce capital punishment include: 

  • China 
  • Japan 
  • Saudi Arabia 
  • Iran 
  • India 
  • Somalia 

Dig Deep Into Our Justice System with an MS in Criminal Justice Administration 

If you’re interested in deepening your understanding of our justice system and gaining a skillset that’ll help you earn a leadership role in the field of criminal justice, The University of Texas Permian Basin’s online MS in Criminal Justice Administration program offers all of the courses to set those goals in motion. 

Not only is the program entirely online, making it more accessible as you continue your current role and complete your courses, but it’s also ranked #5 in the nation for Best Law Enforcement Administration Graduate Programs—and it can be completed in as little as one year. 

In addition to your required courses, you can choose from exciting elective courses that align with your interests and career goals, such as: 

Browse our course list to see all our available classes. When you’re ready to take the next step, apply to start the next chapter in your career in criminal justice.