WRITTEN BY: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Law code, also called Legal Code, a more or less systematic and comprehensive written statement of laws. Law codes were compiled by the most ancient peoples. The oldest extant evidence for a code is tablets from the ancient archives of the city of Ebla (now at Tell Mardikh, Syria), which date to about 2400 BC. The best known ancient code is the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. The Romans began keeping legal records, such as the Law of the Twelve Tables (451–450 BC), but there was no major codification of Roman law until the Code of Justinian (AD 529–565), which was compiled long after the dissolution of the Western Empire. The peoples who overran the Western Empire also made codes of law, such as the Salic Law of the Salian Franks. During the later Middle Ages in Europe, various collections of maritime customs, drawn up for the use of merchants and lawyers, acquired great authority throughout the continent.
From the 15th through the 18th century, movements in various European countries to organize and compile their numerous laws and customs resulted in local and provincial compilations rather than national ones. The first national codes appeared in the Scandinavian countries in the 17th and 18th centuries. A second generation of codes, exemplified by the Prussian Civil Code (1794), represented attempts both to bring about legal unity and to provide a synthesis of 18th-century political and philosophical thought. The 19th century brought more widespread movements for national codifications, the first of which was the Napoleonic Code, which was adopted in France in 1804. Since then, other civil-law countries have enacted similar codes, such as the German Civil Code (1896), the Swiss Civil Code (1907), and the Japanese Civil Code (1896). The Napoleonic Code and the German Civil Code have served as models for the vast majority of other modern civil codes around the world.
In common-law countries, such as Great Britain and the United States, general law codes are the exception rather than the rule, largely because much of the law is based on previous judicial decisions. In the United States these codifications tend to be narrower, covering different types of procedure or penal and probate law. States adopt their own codes, although there have been attempts to establish uniform codes in various areas of law; the most comprehensive of these is the Uniform Commercial Code, which has been adopted by numerous jurisdictions in the country. In Great Britain some codes have been adopted in narrow areas such as sale and partnership, but there has been considerable work done in revising and consolidating existing statutes.
In international law there have been few concrete results, despite considerable efforts at codifying international public and private law. Drafts have been prepared on matters such as arbitration and sale of goods, but so far the difficulty of achieving acceptance by nations with differing legal systems has not been overcome.