When laws came from on high

The Code Napoleon, embodying the codification of the laws of France, was officially adopted on March 21st, 1804, this day 215 years ago. Until then different laws, many of them feudal in nature, had been applied to different parts of France. The new Code provided a unified set of laws for the whole country, written in plain language and within a rational framework. It drew heavily on the Sixth Century compilation of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, which set out laws on property, the family and the individual.

The Code is a type of civil law, relying on legislation and statutes to determine rights, and is in contrast to a common law system, such as England, where the laws embody traditional rights and follow the legal precedent of previous cases. Under the Napoleonic Code, judges are investigators, whereas in common-law traditions they arbitrate between contending parties that argue their case in front of them.

The Napoleonic Code was criticized in common law countries for its de facto presumption of guilt, and for the way it combined magistrate and prosecutor in one person. It was also criticized for making it possible for those accused to be detained for long periods ahead of trial.

It actually took away some rights women had gained under the Revolution. The man was empowered as head of the household, and women were not allowed to trade in possessions or property without asking his permission. He could also disinherit children and imprison them for a month.

The fundamental philosophical difference is that civil law sets out what a citizen's rights are, whereas common law assumes that a person has the rights not specifically prohibited by statute. In popular parlance, civil law tells you what you can do, whereas common law tells you what you cannot do, and assumes you are free to do everything else.

There is a strong tradition in England that your rights are not given to you from on high, but ones that you are entitled to simply by being English. The laws in England have recognized and codified those rights from time to time. Supporters of common law like the fact that much of it comes from below, reflecting the traditional rights that people have enjoyed since ancient times. And they point out that it is more flexible, and quicker to adapt without the need for legislation.

Some commentators have asserted out that the civil law systems of many Continental nations, often derived from the Code Napoleon, do not sit easily with the English common law system, and have led to disputes and disagreements between the two, and a widespread feeling in England that a foreign system was being imposed on them via the European Union. This may have played a role in determining the UK's decision to leave it.