Mixed Legal Systems in a Cultural-Traditional Context

In my previous post about mixed legal systems, it became evident that the conventional definition of a mixed legal system is influenced by Western ideas of a division of legal systems into two groups: civil law countries and common law countries. Such a concept is insufficient for the growing importance of non-Western law in today’s global community. Both Patrick Glenn’s idea of legal traditions and Csaba Varga’s concept of legal culture try to break with convention in order to make more remote legal systems workable for comparative law. The question is whether and how they deal with mixed legal systems.

Patrick Glenn in his Legal Traditions of the World, deals with the civil law tradition and the common law tradition in two different chapters. His focus is, however, more on their different roots that led to two different methodologies than their mixing. As a result, mixed legal systems are rather neglected.

Csaba Vargas’ starting point, in turn, is the heterogeneity of laws. For him, legal systems are intrinsically diverse. Consequently, any classification into any specific group – it being civil, common, or mixed – is artificial in nature and only serves to facilitate the comparative task.


  • PATRICK GLENN, LEGAL TRADITIONS OF THE WORLD (2004). A newer edition is available.
  • William Twining et al., A Fresh Start for Comparative Legal Studies? A Collective Review of Patrick Glenn’s Legal Traditions of the World, 2nd Edition, 1 Journal of Comparative Law 100-199 (2005).

Legal Families in a Cultural-Traditional Context

As discussed in an earlier post, comparative lawyers like to group legal systems in order to facilitate the comparative task. Traditionally, comparative law used the concept of legal families in order to cluster the legal systems of the world, mostly into simplified groups like common law countries and civil law countries. This method of classification has long been criticized as too simplistic and too Western. In particular, critics have pointed out that aspects of legal culture or tradition are not adequately represented in the conventional legal families.

Patrick Glenn therefore introduces a new system of classification based on his concept of legal tradition. Looking at the way legal knowledge is transferred from the past to the present, he distinguishes seven legal traditions of the world: (1) Chthonic legal tradition; (2) Talmudic legal tradition; (3) Civil law tradition; (4) Islamic law tradition; (5) Common law tradition; (6) Hindu legal tradition; (7) Asian legal tradition.

Csaba Varga, for his part, stresses legal variability. In other terms, comparative law and cultures is interested in the question of how legal systems can arrive at different solutions for the same legal problem. Accordingly, on the one hand, the clustering of legal systems into legal families (or traditions) based on their historical roots does not do justice to the diversity of laws. On the other hand, however, different laws can be part of the same legal culture. Consequently, some kind of clustering does also take place under Varga’s approach – only that the classification seems to be sociological/anthropological (based on common – present – social behavior) rather than historical (based on a common past).



What is Legal Culture?

In my last post, it became evident that culture should play a role in comparative law research. Yet what exactly is legal culture? While the strong interrelationship between law and culture has been emphasized since Baron de Montesquieu published his De L’Esprit des Lois in 1758, the concept of legal culture is still unclear. Historically, the term “culture” has nationalistic connotations, mostly due to its use by German romanticism. Today, the term legal culture is often used to talk about the “living law” as opposed to the law in books. Frequently, lawyers refer to Western law as opposed to other legal cultures. In this context, legal culture serves as a general term to indicate law in action in a particular system or region. Seen in this way, however, legal culture does nothing to improve or extend the study of comparative law, but is just a vehicle to distinguish the West from the rest. Still, Csaba Varga employs the term legal culture in order to establish a new interdisciplinary area of research (he calls it comparative legal cultures) that intends to study legal systems not only from a legal stand point, but also from a sociological, philosophical, historical and anthropological perspective. According to Varga

“[…] the term ‘legal cultures’ […] stands for an operative and creative contribution, through social activity rooted in underlying social culture, to express how people experience legal phenomenon […], how and into what they form it through their co-operation, how in what way they conceptualise it, an in what spritit, frame and purpose they make it the subject of theoretical representation and information.” (Varga, p. 182).

In return, Patrick Glenn has pointedly criticized the use of the term legal culture in comparative law. Instead, Glenn prefers the term tradition which he defines as follows:

“A given tradition emerges as a loose conglomeration of data, organized around a basic theme or themes […].” (Glenn, p. 15)

Consequently, legal tradition is transmitted information pertaining to the concept and content of law. Legal traditions are explicitly border-less, meaning they extend beyond the conventional limits of legal systems. This is probably the key element that distinguishes legal traditions from the historic concept of legal cultures. And what are the implications of this dispute for comparative law? In practical terms, because legal culture is such a vague concept, authors should specify their individual definition of culture. More generally, the fact that terms like legal culture and legal tradition are extensively discussed in current comparative law literature shows the importance of legal pluralism for modern comparative law research.


  • Patrick Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World: Sustainable Diversity in Law (2004).
  • Jaakko Husa, Legal Culture vs. Legal Tradition – Different Epistemologies?, Maastricht European Private Law Institute Working Paper Series 2012/18, available here.
  • Ralf Michaels, Legal Culture, available here.
  • Csaba Varga, Legal Traditions? In Search for Families and Cultures of Law, 46 Acta Juridica Hungarica 177-197 (2005).