No Content Set


Napoleon's (not so small) effect on the legal world

29 November 2023

With the Hollywood biopic 'Napoleon' hitting screens this week, the diminutive 18th Century French revolutionary's influence on the development of French law may not be immediately obvious at first blush. But, beyond his influence on the battlefield and the French political system, the 'Little General's' influence on the development of French law was surprisingly significant.

Bonaparte was a significant driving force for change in law and administration in France and the effects of that influence continue to bear fruit in modern France. History tells us that, away from being Bonaparte the battlefield general, Napoleon habitually held dozens of administrative gatherings that gave rise to laws and institutions that hundreds of millions of people still live by today. Napoleon the bureaucrat was the driving force behind the "Code Civil" (otherwise known as the "Napoleonic Code") which came into force in 1804 and remains in force today.

The Napoleonic Code abolished a previous patchwork of feudal laws (the French writer Voltaire once complained that a man travelling across France would have to change laws as often as he changed horses) and established a civil code that stressed the rule of law; for instance, the Napoleonic Code provided that laws could only be applied if they had been duly promulgated and then only if those laws had been previously published.  The Napoleonic Code was equally forward-thinking in the sense that it encouraged judges to interpret the law because they were prohibited, under the Code, from refusing to do justice on grounds of the insufficiency of the law.

Whilst the Napoleonic Code was not the first legal code to be established in a European country with a civil-law system (there were predecessor codes in Bavaria (1756), Prussia (1794) and Austria (1797), modern commentators now regard the Napoleonic Code as being one of the most influential legal documents in the world. It was so widely disseminated and adopted that it now finds itself in force, in various forms, in approximately 120 countries worldwide.

Common law judges base their decisions on precedent of past decisions and, to a certain extent, common sense as understood at the time of the decision. In legal systems based on the Napoleonic Code, however, judges are supposed to rule based on the legal code, and that’s all. Precedent can be used as a reference, but it is in no way binding. In theory, there is no case law in France (or other countries where the law is codified). However, the courts still had to fill in the gaps in the laws and regulations and the code and legislation have required judicial interpretation. France has, therefore, a vast body of judicially-created law so whilst there is no rule of binding precedent in French law decisions by important courts have become more or less equivalent to case law. On the flip side, many common law systems have been influenced by the approach of codification e.g., Louisiana and New York in the USA and the U.K. through EU Law.

The extent of adoption and influence of the Napoleonic Code is a mightily impressive legal legacy for a man who, in many quarters, is remembered by history as more akin to Josef Stalin than he is to Thomas Jefferson. Of course, the nature of Napoleon's true legacy is shrouded in (justifiable) controversy, not least because he was responsible for diluting the rights that had been obtained for women in the French Revolution, the reimposition of slavery in the West Indies and he sacrificed countless lives on the battlefield without compunction (spoiler alert: the film tells you how many million in total). It seems Napolean himself was aware of this as he wrote from his last exile, “my real glory is not the 40 battles I won—for my defeat at Waterloo will destroy the memory of those victories. . . . What nothing will destroy, what will live forever, is my Civil Code.” Napolean's influence on the legal systems of today is greatly under-appreciated and, we presume, not the central focus of this Christmas' blockbuster!