Legal Language and Culture

The connection between legal language and culture can be best seen in post-colonial settings. In particular, the respect for indigenous language and tradition is important when drafting treaties between Indian tribes and governments. Some of these treaties try to integrate the indigenous while others establish institutions intended to translate between the colonial and the indigenous system. Evidently, such interactions between two systems are problematic in terms of socio-legal communication.

In his article, ‘‘What Are You Going to Do with the Village’s Knowledge?’’ Talking Tradition, Talking Law in Hopi Tribal Court, Justin B. Richland compellingly describes the difficulty of applying Anglo-American legal principles to Hopi Indian traditions and customs. Richland presents a property dispute among members of a Hopi village. The dispute took place in front of a Hopi judge sitting as Hopi Tribal Court. This kind of court proceeding is set to accommodate Anglo-American procedure with Hopi customs and traditions. It is exactly such type of  interaction between two fundamentally different legal systems that poses socio-legal challenges for all parties involved. In this particular case, the judge forwent a cross-examination and took questioning of the witnesses into his own hand. To prevent any future argument that he was partial, the judge tried to remain as abstract as possible and demanded that the witnesses only state general principles of village customs and traditions. Historically, however, such customs and traditions are the reserved knowledge of a privileged part of the village population and are transferred among members much like personal property. Therefore, the resistance of the witnesses to testify on general principles of custom and tradition was vehement. Furthermore, as the witnesses represented village elders that possessed such privileged knowledge, they challenged the (external) judge’s power to decide the case. Instead, they saw the reason for their presence in helping to decide this particular property dispute. Evidently, given such conflicting conceptions, the hearing did not go at all smoothly.

This case is an excellent illustration of the difficult relationship between law and culture. While some still challenge the relevance of culture and tradition and focus exclusively on legal principles, such an approach is problematic, as the above-mentioned case shows. The question then is how these sometimes clashing concepts of law and culture can be best accommodated. An important goal would be the cultural awareness and the respect for culture among lawyers. For comparative law this means that comparatists should not only focus on the positive laws of different legal systems, but also on their traditions and customs.


Justin B. Richland, “What Are You Going to Do With the Village’s Knowledge?” Talking Law, Talking Tradition in Hopi Tribal Court, 39 Law & Soc Rev 235-272 (2005).

Clustering Legal Systems

In comparative law, there seems to be a general consensus that clustering legal systems is more practical – especially for macro-level comparisons. The prevalent method is to group legal systems into legal families. The notion of family has the advantage that the metaphor is expandable, i.e. parent-, sibling-, or cousin-laws. 

How are Legal Families Defined?

Different approaches, however, exist as to how a group of legal systems shall be defined. The challenge is to develop a classification method that merges similar legal systems in a most comprehensive way without being random or fragmented. This post will present five common criteria for grouping the legal systems of the world: (1) sources of law, (2) ideology and legal technique, (3) substance of the legal system, (4) legal style, and (5) tradition.

(1) Sources of Law

A straightforward way of classification is to divide the legal systems into groups that differ in terms of  sources of law. Usually, this method leads to the distinction of two groups:

  • common law countries and
  • civil law countries.

Common law countries base their legal systems on the English common law tradition, whereas civil law countries have codified law. Such a distinction is, of course, easy to do and avoids too much fragmentation. It is, however, very coarse and does acknowledge neither indigenous law nor the large diversity among the individual common and civil law systems.

(2) Ideology and Legal Technique

Another classification method looks primarily at a country’s ideology and, complementarily, at its prevailing legal technique. The ideology of a country is derived from looking at religion, philosophy, and political/economic/social structure. Originally, this methodology led to five legal families

  • Western systems,
  • Socialist systems,
  • Islamic law,
  • Hindu law,
  • Chinese law.

It was subsequently modified to include only three legal families:

  • Romanistic-German family,
  • Common law family, and
  • Socialist family

… plus a miscellaneous group of other systems that did not fit into these three groups.

This method is very comprehensive and considerably facilitates the comparative task. It does, however, not sufficiently recognize indigenous legal systems. In addition, it requires sometimes detailed knowledge of the law in order to know into which family a certain legal system fits.

(3) Substance of the Legal System

A different way of grouping legal systems is to focus on their substance, in particular their originality, derivation, and common elements. This classification method arrives at seven legal families:

  • French family,
  • German family,
  • Scandinavian family,
  • English family,
  • Russian family,
  • Islamic family,
  • Hindu family.

Again, grouping legal systems according to their substance avoids fragmentation and therefore facilitates the comparative task. It represents, however, a very subtle classification and leaves out certain (indigenous) systems.

(4) Legal Style

The idea of style is derived from the arts. In law, style is characterized by historical background and development, mode of legal thought, distinctive institutions, recognized legal sources, and ideology. From this follows a division into eight legal families:

  • Romanistic family,
  • Germanic family,
  • Nordic family,
  • Common law family,
  • Law of the PeoplesRepublic of China,
  • Japanese law,
  • Islamic law, and
  • Hindu law.

Using style for the classification of legal systems brings similar benefits and challenges as the use of substance as a tool: it facilitates the comparative task by grouping legal systems into few families, yet classification can be very subtle and some (indigenous) laws is not given sufficient credit.

(5) Tradition

A rather new way of grouping legal systems is to look at how they transmit information from the past to the present. From this follows the distinction of seven legal traditions:

  • Chthonic legal tradition,
  • Talmudic legal tradition,
  • Civil law tradition,
  • Islamic law tradition,
  • Common law tradition,
  • Hindu legal tradition, and
  • Asian legal tradition

This grouping method still avoids fragmentation, while at the same time being very comprehensive and including indigenous systems. Its classification criteria are, however, very subtle and therefore this method requires excellent knowledge of the legal systems and their cultures and traditions.

Assessment of the Different Methods

The preceding presentation shows that neither of the described methods is perfect in an absolute sense. Rather, it depends on the context which of the above-explained methods – if any – should apply. For a comprehensive, but general comparison of laws, the traditions approach (5) seems appropriate. For a coarse confrontation of basic principles of private law in Europe and the United States, the simple distinction between common law and civil law may suffice. For a global functional analysis of a specific aspect or area of law, some variation of approaches (2) – (4) could be workable. If you are only interested in how an issue is addressed in a handful of countries, you do not really need to resort to clustering at all. Although a basic understanding of how legal systems relate to each other is always helpful. Finally, some areas of law need other differentiating factors. (E.g. in constitutional law, there are quite different interrelationships of legal systems). In sum, the above-described approaches provide a useful working basis for everyone who is interested in comparative law, though they may need to be adapted for each individual case.


  • Jaakko Husa, Legal Families, in ELGAR ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMPARATIVE LAW 382-393 (Jan Smiths ed., 2006).