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What is Comparative Law?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 16, 2024
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Comparative law is the study of laws and legal systems in other countries. This form of law describes, analyzes and compares foreign legal systems, and is increasingly important in the trend toward globalization. It is essentially an academic study that both separately describes different legal systems and pits two or more legal systems against one another to determine the differences.

Since French social commentator Montesquieu wrote his book De l’esprit des lois, or "The Spirit of the Laws", on the importance of comparative law, several branches of this study have developed. These include constitutional law, civil law, commercial law, criminal law and administrative law. These fields of comparative law enable justice systems in every country to attempt to perfect their own legal system, to attain a greater understanding of the world and values outside their own country and, in some cases, aid in the different initiatives that work toward the unification of legal systems.

Outside of a knowledge standpoint, comparative law is essential in improving and maintaining communication between different legal systems. Other than providing a structured means of intellectual exchange, it is also helpful in shaping foreign policies in different countries. This aids in streamlining the legal process for global businesses and the treatment of border-crossing criminals.

While comparative law can and does compare the legal systems of two or more countries, the breakdown of legal systems is often much more complex. Countries of the world are typically broken down into families, though classification of these families varies. The oldest grouping in comparative law broke down the world into seven families, including the French group, the German group, the Scandinavian group, the English group, the Russian group, the Islamic group and the Hindu group, with each of these groups encompassing a number of countries.

Comparative law also often groups countries by their ideology. The simplest form of this puts countries into one of five families: Western law, Soviet law, Muslim law, Hindu law and Chinese law. Another version of this grouping focuses on both ideology and the history and sources of the laws in use. This form of comparative law groups countries into six categories: Roman, German, Anglo-American, Scandinavian, Far East and Religion.

With the increasing trend toward globalization and more countries moving toward industrialization, comparative law provides a gateway to understanding and cooperation. It not only allows individual countries a look into the workings and beliefs of their neighbors, but it also provides an overall look at humanity as a whole. From its inception in the 1700s, comparative law has continued to grow into one of the most important and relevant legal and humanity studies in the world.

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