A law unto themselves
French Property News|November 2020
Why is French law so different to the law in England and Wales? It all goes back to William, Henry and Napoleon, explains Alan Field
Alan Field
The two most important people in our story are a French emperor and a king of England.

Let’s put aside the question of whether Napoleon Bonaparte was really French himself (he was born in Corsica less than two years after it had been purchased by France from Genoa, after all).

Henry II of England, son of the Count of Anjou, was born in Le Mans in 1133 and died at Chinon in 1189, so he was really more what we would describe as a Frenchman today. Yet these two men were responsible for developing the two major legal systems used in Western Europe and beyond – French civil law (sometimes called Napoleonic Code) and English common law.

They are fundamentally different approaches to achieving justice, and understanding the broad differences between them makes all interactions with the French legal system – voluntary or otherwise – more understandable.

CRACK THE CODES

What makes it all the more confusing is that there are a lot of French words (albeit via Latin and Old French) in English land law. But these are all false friends – just think of lease, tenant, conveyance, demise, mortgage and chattel. There are many more. But they now all have technical and purely English law meanings.

That other Frenchman in English history was William of Normandy, the Conqueror himself (although, as a Norman, he certainly wouldn’t have described himself as French – the Franks were his enemies actually). But dishing out English land to his supporters led to a new language and a new way of defining land ownership that has meant title to land still exists in a way that William would recognise today, although he would be confused about many other things!

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