A simple explanation of the main legal systems can be drafted by comparison between the two existing bodies of law:
- English Law: often referred to as Common Law, it is the legal system which is the foundation of the legal systems of most of the English-speaking countries in the world. It is based on usage and customs, and decisions taken by the courts. Other names for this legal system are judge-made law or case law.
- European or Continental Law: this legal system is based upon the civil law and strongly influences Western Europe countries. The term "civil law" contrasts with both "common law" and "criminal law", and it has two different senses:
- Civil law is the body of law based on written legal codes. Legal disputes are settled by reference to these codes. Judges are bound by the written law and its provisions.
- Civil law is the opposite to Criminal law, so it deals with non-criminal matters such as breach of contract.
A further difference between the Common-Law system and the Civil-Law system can be found in the way processes are conducted. The adversarial system is typical of common-law countries, whereas the inquisitorial system is characteristic of civil-law countries. The former is defined by a passive role of the presiding judge and/or jury: the attorneys are in charge of gathering evidences and present them. The latter, conversely, features a judge who is actively managing the proceeding, inquiring and controlling the way evidence is gathered. The attorneys must observe the judge's questioning and complete it with their own questions.
Finally, it is important to mention that judges and jurors in the Common-law systems depend on precedents from previous court decisions to rule cases (although nowadays the law is also codified in written form in this system).