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Code (law)



Code (law), in jurisprudence, a systematic compilation of law in written form, issued by rulers in former times and promulgated by the legislative authority after the rise of representative governments. Early legal codes were little more than statements of the bodies of customs that had obtained the force of law in civilized communities. The earliest legal code known in its entirety is the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi of the 18th-century bc, written in cuneiform and discovered in 1901. Four fragments of an earlier Babylonian cuneiform code, known as the Code of Lipit-Ishtar, were discovered in about 1900 and deciphered in 1948.


Some historians include among early codes the Book of the Covenant and the Book of the Law of the Old Testament. The ancient Greek city-states began codifying laws in the 7th-century bc. The Laws of Gortyn, named after the ancient town of Gortyna, Crete, are regarded as the closest to a systematic statement of ancient Hellenic law. The Twelve Tables of ancient Roman law are often cited as a classic example of an early code. Other compilations of law include the Hindu Code of Manu, believed to date from about ad 400, and the code of the Chinese Tang dynasty, issued in ad 630.

Of all the codes of antiquity, that of the Roman emperor Justinian I, entitled the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) and known as the Codex Justinianus, Justinian Code, or simply The Code most closely resembles the codes of later times. It was in part a compilation and consolidation of statute law, but it lacked the systematic arrangement and the concentration on a single branch of the law, such as criminal law or civil law, which are essential features of later codes.


The influence of the Justinian Code was great. Long after Rome fell, Roman law, as codified by Justinian, continued to serve as a source of law in Europe in the form of civil law. Through a 13th-century Spanish code called Siete Partidas (Seven Parts) that was based partly on the Justinian Code, the Justinian Code was later extended to the New World and, with the Siete Partidas, became the basis for the legal systems of most of Latin America.

A modern code is designed to provide a comprehensive statement of the laws in force in a single branch of the law in a logical and convenient arrangement and in precise and unambiguous phraseology. Modern codes include codes of civil, criminal, and public law and codes of civil and criminal procedures.

Statesmen of modern times have regarded legal codes as necessary instruments of national unity and central authority. Napoleon planned the Code Civil des Français, later renamed the Code Napoléon, as a means of consolidating his realm. The Code Napoléon, one of the most important modern codes, is the basis of the legal systems of Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, Italy, Portugal, Haiti, the state of Louisiana in the United States, and the province of Quebec in Canada. It also influenced the legal systems of a number of Latin American countries.

Other important modern codes include the Danske Lov, proclaimed in 1683 by Christian V of Denmark and Norway; Code Frédéric, or Gesetzbuch (Law Book), proclaimed by the Prussian king Frederick II in 1751 and renamed Landrecht in 1794; and the Gesetzbuch of Germany, issued in 1900, which influenced the later codes of Switzerland, Turkey, and China. Although not a product of secular authority, the Codex Juris Canonici (Code of Canon Law) of the Roman Catholic Church, which came into effect in 1918, is regarded as an important modern code; it marked the culmination of almost 1,900 years of development in the field of canon law.


In England and Wales, the legal system is based on common law, and codification has largely been a problem of consolidating common and statute law. A pioneer in this work was the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died while working on a codification of constitutional law. His work influenced the later codes adopted by the British government for India; and these, in turn, influenced codification in England, as was evidenced by the revision of statutes and legal procedure from 1870 to 1885. The Bills of Exchange Act (1882), the Partnership Act (1890), the Sale of Goods Act (1893), and the Marine Insurance Act (1906) are regarded as true codes because they consolidated common and statute laws in a comprehensive fashion. Occasionally, parliament enacts a statute which simplifies a discrete area of law in which anomalies have arisen: the Theft Act 1968 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 are examples of this. Such statutes are not proper codes, however, because they deal only with one part of a larger area of law—here, the criminal law generally.


In the United States, the law is derived largely from English common law; but the problem of codification has been complicated by the existence of a multiplicity of sovereign governmental jurisdictions, and two general sets of codes have developed—federal and state codes—with divergences on many points. However, largely as a result of the pioneering work of the American jurist David Dudley Field, considerably more than half the states have adopted uniform codes of civil and criminal procedure, and all of them have enacted uniform legislation with respect to negotiable credit instruments.


Attempts at defining a code of international public and private law have not been successful. The League of Nations failed in its attempt to do so. The United Nations has established a commission to study the possible codification of various aspects of international law.

Reviewed By:
Simon Levene