All of Canada, (with the exception of Quebec, which maintains a civil law system) is a common law jurisdiction. The common law is a legacy of the British empire. Spread across the world all of those formerly pink coloured former members of the British empire, continue to maintain a common law system of justice. The United States, with the exception of Louisiana is a common law jurisdiction.
The main feature of a common law judicial system is that it is a body of law at least partially derived from judge made decisions rather than solely from statutes or constitutions.In common law jurisdictions, it is not unusual to see contracts, wills, and other agreements from widely separated parts of the world bear remarkable similarities. I have seen wills drafted in India, South Africa, parts of the Caribbean and all over the United States, bear many resemblances to a Will drafted in Ontario, despite the fact that the laws of wills and estates are provincially distinct.
One of the primary characteristics of the common law is that statutes and laws are passed by the legislature, however, they are relatively general in their provision. It is for judges to interpret these laws to expand upon them and at times, to create them.The common law has long historical roots. Torts, which are a civil action for a wrong, are not a closed set. The courts from time to time create brand new areas of civil wrong which can be sued upon. The most recent in Ontario in 2012 was the tort of intrusion upon seclusion, also commonly known as the invasion of privacy.
Civil law, primarily a derivative of the Napoleonic code, attempts to avoid the lack of clarity and predictability of the common law. The civil law attempts to produce a code which is all encompassing and specific. It is an attempt to create a detailed code in which the answer is available by reading that code rather than seeking a judge’s interpretation.The common law conversely is rooted in judicial history. Previous judge’s decisions are interpreted and followed. The principle of the case is absorbed into the common law. A prime example of common law is that of negligence and the standards of conduct by which persons, companies and indeed even governments are to conduct themselves. When ones conduct crosses the civil line of appropriate and safe behavior and acts in a negligent fashion, this creates a tort which in turn is the basis for a civil law suit. Almost all of these rules are judge made. They remain until trumped by a higher court or the legislature passes a specific law to amend it. An example is the Ontario Occupier’s Liability Act in which the government clarified various rules and set standards. In turn, the Occupier’s Liability Act, contains many general provisions. Those general provisions are interpreted by judges and create new judge made laws which are followed and evolve.
This long winded explanation of the differences between common law and civil law, while legally highly entertaining, is to a degree, one of the reasons why lawyers often cannot give absolute predictions as to how a case will be decided at a particular point in time. The decisions are driven by both the facts and the court’s interpretation of those facts and the law. The law is made both by the Government and Judges. Cases are recorded and are now far more readily accessible in various computer databases. I can assure you that there are few exercises more frustrating then attempting to find an earlier decided case, which contains the very same fact situation as the one presented by your client. One of the most troubling of all such circumstances is when a set of facts that the lawyer is absolutely certain is as common as hot dogs at a baseball game, has never had a recorded case directly on point. It is the lawyer’s task and a reflection of their ability to draw similarities from non similar cases and to use their powers of persuasion to convince a court as to why their client should be successful.