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The Importance of Context: Selecting Legal Systems in Comparative Legal Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2009

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These days, a century after the famous Paris convention on comparative law, comparative legal research is booming. A large percentage of legal research – at least in the Netherlands – currently is conducted on a comparative basis. However, whereas the interest in conducting comparative legal research is growing, the interest i n how to carry out this type of research is diminishing. Applied comparative legal research is supposed to be ‘good’; discussions on how to carry out this type of research are considered a waste of time. I would agree wholeheartedly with the latter statement if there were a clear, crystallized and accepted theory, or if there were no need for a method at all. In my opinion, the latter statement thus must be rejected. Although, as is often said, ‘a lot’ has been written about the methods of comparative law, there is still no consensus on a theory of comparative law. Ideas on methodology are elaborated from different points of view and no unequivocal concepts are used. The idea that there is no need for a method denies both the academic character of comparative legal research and the fact that nowadays a great deal of comparative legal research is carried out by relatively young and – in the field of comparative legal research – inexperienced PhD students who would welcome some clear guidelines. As methods are simply lessons learned by people who have done something by trial and error, why shouldn’t one benefit from the lessons learned by others?

Copyright © T.M.C. Asser Press 2001

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2. This opinion is usually expressed in more polite terms and rather orally than in writing. Nevertheless, one does hear regularly echoes of the following statement of Hessel E. Yntema, the Chief Editor of the American Journal of Comparative Law: ‘Don’t send articles about comparative law; get busy and do some comparing’, as cited with consent by Drion, J., Nederlands Juristenblad (1964) p. 279Google Scholar. See also Pintens, W., Inleiding tot de rechtsvergelijking [Introduction to Comparative Law] (Leuven, Universitaire Pers Leuven 1998) p. 87.Google Scholar

3. This is a phrase one encounters regularly in the literature and at symposia and the like on comparative law. What one means by ‘a lot’ is naturally rather subjective since (fortunately) no one has ever counted the exact number of publications in this field. What is certain, however, is that in proportion to the studies of applied comparative law, this ‘multitude’ comprises a lot less than one suggests by using an expression like this.

4. Avoiding the comparison of objects that are not useful to compare (incomparable) in the given context.

5. U. Drobnig, ‘Methodenfragen der Rechtsvergleichung im Lichte der “International Encyclopedia of Comparative Law”’, in Caemmerer, E. von, Mentschikoff, S. and Zweigert, K. (hrsg.), Ius privatum gentium (Tübingen, Mohr 1969) p. 222.Google Scholar

6. Kokkini-Iatridou, D. et al. , Een inleiding tot het rechtsvergelijkende onderzoek [An Introduction t o Comparative Legal Research] (Deventer, Kluwer 1988) p. 19, p. 138.Google Scholar

7. Ibid., p. 138.

8. Ibid., p. 87 and pp. 138–142.

9. Sacco, R., Introduzione al diritto comparato, 5th edn. (Torino, UTET 1992) p. 20Google Scholar: ‘E‘ possibile comparare qualsiasi sistema con qualsiasi altro sistema?’ In his well-known article ‘Legal Formants: A Dynamic Approach to Comparative Law’, 39 AJCL (1991) p. 6Google Scholar Sacco phrases this question as follows: ‘When the differences between systems are sufficiently great, can one still compare them?’

10. Zweigert, K. and Kötz, H., An Introduction to Comparative Law, translation Weir, T., 3rd rev. edn. (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1998) p. 42.Google Scholar

11. See also Constantinesco, L.-J., Traité de droit comparé, Tome II, La méthode comparative (Paris, Librairie générate de droit et de jurisprudence 1974) p. 39Google Scholar: ‘Les comparatistes avertissent, à juste litre, que la qualité scientifique de la comparaison exige qu’on n’embrasse pas trop d’ordres juridiques. La règle demeure toujours multum non multa. Mais c ‘est là un conseil de bon sens et nullement un obstacle de nature méthodologique.’

12. Zweigert, and Kotz, , op. cit., n. 10, at p. 41.Google Scholar

13. Kamba, W.J., ‘Comparative Law: A Theoretical Framework’, 23 ICLQ (1974) pp. 506 et seq. Kamba refers to such authors as Pound, Pollock, Schmitthoff and Gutteridge.Google Scholar

14. Ibid., p. 507.

15. de Cruz, P., A Modern Approach to Comparative Law (Deventer, Kluwer 1993) pp. 3637Google Scholar. Though, Kamba is not named explicitly here.

16. Two years later, De Cruz discussed this point more clearly. Kamba is now named explicitly. However, his main view remains the same. See de Cruz, P., Comparative Law in a Changing World (London, Cavendish 1995) pp. 217219.Google Scholar

17. Constantinesco, op. cit. n. 11, at pp. 91–119.

18. Ibid., p. 94.

19. Ibid., p. 110.

20. Gorie, F., Bourgeois, G. and Bocken, H., Rechtsvergelijking [Comparative Law] (Gent, Story Recht 1985) pp. 1921Google Scholar discuss – explicitly following Constantinesco – this subject in a similar way. They pay attention to the opinions on comparability of the legal systems (‘Het probleem van de vergelijkbaarheid der rechtsstelsels’), but do not take a clear position in this discussion. This way of discussing this subject strengthens even more the suggestion that not every legal system can be compared with every other legal system than the way in which Constantinesco treated it. In the second edition of their book (Gorle, F. et al. , Rechtsvergelijking (Gent, Story-Scientia 1991)) this subject matter is no longer discussed.Google Scholar

21. de Groot, G.R., Vergelijkt alles en behoudt net goede [Compare Everything and Hold Fast to What is Good] (Deventer, Kluwer 1989) pp. 2324.Google Scholar

22. Zweigert, K., ‘Zur Methode der Rechtsvergleichung’, 13 Studium Generate (1960) pp. 193200Google Scholar. On p. 195 one reads: ‘In ihrer Entwicklung reife Rechtssysteme sind Gegenstand der Rezeption oder umfänglicher Nachahmung, und sotange das imitierende System (Tochterrecht) noch im Stil der Rechtsordnung verbleibt, von der es sich ableitet, pflegt es anjener Kombination von Originalität und Ausgewogenheit der Lösung, welchedie “bedeutende” Rechtsordnungauszeichnet, hinter der Mutterordnung zurückzubleiben. Solange kann der Rechtsvergleicher sich damit begnügen, die Mutterordnung zu durchforschen; die Tochterrechte kann er beiseite lassen.’ This thought is not completely ‘new’. See also Arminjon, P., Nolde, B. and Wolff, M., Traité de droit comparé, I (Paris, Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence 1950) p. 30: ‘Pour être fructueux, pour atteindre leur but, les travaux de droit comparé doivent avoir pour objel sinon tous les systèmes juridiques existants, ce qui serait pratiquement impossible, mais tous les systèmes juridiques qui unissent des collectivés humaines importantes et ceux dont l’étude offre de l’interêt en raison de leur originalité ou de leur valeur technique. La comparaison des systèmes juridiques souches sera très approfondie, celle des systèmes juridiques dérivés se limitera sauf exeptions, dans chaque famille, aux principaux d’entre eux et sera plus ou moins poussée suivant la matière sur laquelle portera la comparaison.’Google Scholar

23. Constantinesco, L.-J., Rechtsvergleichung, Band II, Die rechtsvergleichende Methode (Köln, Heymann 1972) pp. 4951Google Scholar; Constantinesco, op. cit. n. 11, at pp. 38–42.

24. Sauveplanne, J.G., Rechtsstelsels in vogelvlucht; een inleiding tot de privaatrechtelijke rechtsvergelijking [Legal Systems in a Nutshell; An Introduction to Private Comparative Law] (Deventer, Kluwer 1975) p. 7Google Scholar; Sauveplanne, J.G., Rechtsstelsels in vogelvlucht; een inleiding tot de privaatrechtelijke rechtsvergelijking, 2nd edn. (Deventer, Kluwer 1981) p. 9.Google Scholar

25. Gorlé, , Bourgeois, and Bocken, 1985, op. cit. n. 20, at pp. 2526Google Scholar; Gorlé, et al. 1991, op. cit. n. 20, at pp. 2526.Google Scholar

26. Kokkini, et al. , op. cit. n. 6, at p. 87.Google Scholar

27. de Boer, Th.M., ‘Vergelijkenderwijs: de inspiratie van buitenlands recht’ [’Comparative Research: An Inspiration from Foreign Law’], 123 WPNR (1992) pp. 3940Google Scholar. See also de Boer, Th.M., ‘Uitgangspunten van een rechtsvergelijkende theorie: een paradigma voor de lage landen’ [’Starting Points of Comparative Legal Theory: A Paradigm for the Low Countries’], 43 AA (1994) pp. 303310.Google Scholar

28. De Cruz, op. cit. n. 16; Bogdan, M., Comparative Law (Göteborg, Kluwer 1994)Google Scholar; De Cruz, op. cit. n. 15. Except for the third edition of An Introduction to Comparative Law by Zweigert and Kötz, op. cit. n. 10 and – in a restricted way (cf, p. 89 ) – the Inleiding tot de rechtsvergelijking by Pintens, op. cit. n. 2.

29. Zweigert, , loc. cit. n. 22, at p. 196Google Scholar; Zweigert, and Kötz, , op. cit. n. 10, at p. 41.Google Scholar

30. Sauveplanne, 1981, op. cit. n. 24, at p. 9.Google Scholar

31. Ibid. See also van Dijk, P., ‘De rechtsvergelijking en het recht der Internationale organisaties; enige methodologische notities’ [’Comparative Law and the Law of International Organizations: Some Methodological Notes’], in Liber Amicorum Pieter VerLoren van Themaat (Deventer, Kluwer 1982) p. 88Google Scholar; Gorlé, et al. 1991, op. cit. n. 20, at pp. 2526.Google Scholar

32. Kokkini, et al. , op. cit. n. 6, at p. 87Google Scholar. See also Ibid., pp. 138–142.

33. Pintens, , op. cit. n. 2, at p. 89Google Scholar. See also Ibid., p. 86.

34. Kamba, , loc. cit. n. 13, at p. 508.Google Scholar

35. Drobnig, , op. cit. n. 5, at p. 224.Google Scholar

36. Constantinesco, , op. cit. n. 11, at p. 41.Google Scholar

37. De Boer, 1992, loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 45.Google Scholar

38. Drobnig, , op. cit. n. 5, at p. 224Google Scholar; De Boer, 1992, loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 45Google Scholar; De Boer, 1994, loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 308.Google Scholar

39. De Boer, 1994, loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 308.Google Scholar

40. Zweigert, , loc. cit. n. 22, at p. 196Google Scholar; Zweigert, and Kötz, , op. cit. n. 10, at p. 41.Google Scholar

41. Drobnig, , op. cit. n. 5, at pp. 225226Google Scholar. See also Pintens, , op. cit. n. 2, at p. 86.Google Scholar

42. Constantinesco, , op. cit. n. 11, at pp. 4142.Google Scholar

43. Ibid., p. 42.

44. De Boer, 1992, loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 48.Google Scholar

45. Also Kokkini mentions topic as well as the objective of the study. She seems, however, to stress the topic more (supra n. 32).

46. De Boer, 1992, loc. cit n. 27, at pp. 4748Google Scholar. On the transferability of parts of legal systems to other legal systems see among others Watson, A., Legal Transplants: An Approach to Comparative Law (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press 1974)Google Scholar; Watson, A., ‘Legal Transplants and Law Reform’, 92 Law Quarterly Review (1976) pp. 7984Google Scholar; Dijk, Van, op. cit. n. 31, at pp. 9698Google Scholar; Grossfeld, B., The Strength and Weakness of Comparative Law (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1990)Google Scholar; B.R., Dorbeck-Jung, “The Conceptualization of Comparative Educational Law’, in de Groof, J., ed., The Legal Status of Teachers in Europe (Leuven, ACCO 1995) pp. 127128Google Scholar; Watson, A., Legal Transplants and European Private Law (Maastricht, METRO 2000).Google Scholar

47. According to Van Dijk (op. cit. n. 31, at p. 80) the definition of the problem of the research and the objective of the research are closely connected.

48. Ibid., p. 87.

49. Cf., Dijk, Van, op. cit. n. 31, at pp. 8788.Google Scholar

50. See also Florijn, N.A., Rechtsvergelijking in het wetgevingsproces [Comparative Law in the Legislative Process] (diss. Tilburg) (Zwolle, W.E.J. Tjeenk Willink 1993) pp. 177Google Scholar et seq. (specially pp. 180–182); Florijn, N.A., Leidraad voor zinvolle rechtsvergelijking [A Guideline for Meaningful Comparative Legal Research] (Den Haag, Ministerie van Justitie 1995) pp. 4547.Google Scholar

51. Florijn, 1995, op. cit. n. 50, at p. 46.Google Scholar

52. Florijn, 1993, op. cit. n. 50, at p. 180.Google Scholar

53. See, e.g., Florijn, 1993, op. cit. n. 50, at pp. 180181.Google Scholar

54. Sandrock, O., Über Sinn und Methode der zivilistischen Rechtsvergleichung (Frankfurt a.M./Berlin, Alfred Metzner Verlag 1966) p. 29.Google Scholar

55. Kamba, , loc. cit. n. 13, at p. 489Google Scholar. See also De Cruz, , op. cit. n. 15, at pp. 3637Google Scholar; De Cruz, , op. cit. n. 16, at pp. 217219.Google Scholar

56. Bogdan, , op. cit. n. 28, at p. 57Google Scholar: ‘Which legal systems and which elements one chooses to compare naturally depends of the purpose of the comparison and on the interests of the comparatist.’

57. De Groot, , op. cit. n. 21, at p. 23.Google Scholar

58. E.g., De Boer, 1994 (loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 307Google Scholar) states that according to his experience the selection of legal systems is more often determined by external factors – a foreign friend, an invitation to visit one happens to receive from a foreign university – rather than by deliberate academic choice.

59. Sauveplanne, 1975, op. cit. n. 24, at p. 8.Google Scholar

60. Kokkini, , op. cit. n. 6, at p. 138.Google Scholar

61. De Boer, 1992, loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 46.Google Scholar

62. Florijn, 1995, op. cit. n. 50, at p. 46.Google Scholar

63. Zwalve, W.J., Het Janushoofd der Rechtsvergelijking [The Janus Face of Comparative Law] (inaugural lecture Groningen) (Groningen, Wolters-Noordhoff 1988) p. 8.Google Scholar

64. De Boer, 1992, loc. cit. n. 27, at p. 46Google Scholar, fn. 52. See also Sauveplanne, 1981, op. cit. n. 24, at pp. 1214Google Scholar; Dijk, Van, op. cit. n. 31, at p. 88Google Scholar.

65. Pintens, , op. cit. n. 2, at pp. 5253.Google Scholar

66. Sauveplanne, 1981, op. cit. n. 24, at p. 8.Google Scholar

67. Florijn, 1995, op. cit. n. 50, at p. 46.Google Scholar

68. The analyses extended to 39 reports submitted to the Netherlands Association for Comparative Law (Nederlandse Vereniging voor Rechtsvergelijking) and 34 studies included in the series Arbeiten zur Rechtsvergleichung of the German Gesellschaft für Rechtsvergleichung (Oderkerk, A.E., De preliminaire fase van het rechtsvergelijkend onderzoek [The Preliminary Phase of Comparative Legal Research] (Ars Aequi Libri, Nijmegen 1999) pp. 91100; pp. 101–166 (120–145); pp. 167–218 (182–198)).Google Scholar

69. A quarter (10) of the Dutch studies analysed show discrepancies between the data in the introduction and the finally included systems. This also applies to a sixth (6) of the German studies.

70. van der Meulen, J.D., De belediging van hoofden van bevriende staten [Insulting Friendly Heads of State] (Deventer, Kluwer 1970).Google Scholar

71. Schneider, T., Der Fonds de Garantie A ulomobile im Rahmen des Schutzes der Verkehrsopfer. Internationale Vergleichung und rechtliche Einordnung (Frankfurt a.M., Metzner 1967).Google Scholar

72. Drexelius, M., Irrtum und Risiko. Rechtsvergleichende Untersuchungen und Reformvorschläge zum Recht der Irrtumsanfechtung (Frankfurt a.M., Metzner 1964).Google Scholar

73.Das österreichische Allgemeine Bülrgerliche Gesetzbuch von 1811 ist das älteste Zivilgesetzbuch des deutschen Rechtskreises, das heute noch gilt. Trotzdem wirkt es in manchem moderner in der Betrachtungsweise und ist nicht selten origineller in seinen Lösungen der in alien Landern begegnenden Probleme als etwa das deutsche BGB oder auch das ebenfalls wesentlich jüngere Schweizer Zivilrech’ (Drexelius, op. cit. n. 72, at p. 25).

74. Providing an example to follow or to avoid.

75. Kelk, C. and Legemaate, J., Rechtsbescherming in de psychiatrie [Legal Protection in Psychiatry] (Deventer, Kluwer 1990).Google Scholar

76. Boele-Woelki, K. et al. , Huwelijksvermogensrecht in rechtsvergelijkend perspectief [Matrimonial Property Law from a Comparative Point of View] (Deventer, Kluwer 2000).Google Scholar

77. See on the methodological and other choices made by the Lando Commission when drafting its principles, M.W. Hesselink, ‘The Principles of European Contract Law: Some Choices Made by the Lando Commission’, in Hesselink, M.W. and de Vries, G.J.P., Principles of European Contract Law; Preadviezen uitgebracht voor de Vereniging voor Burgerlijk Recht [Preliminary Reports for the Association of Civil Law] (Deventer, Kluwer 2001).Google Scholar

78. With the expansion of the Union, the number of members of the Commission has increased over the years (Hesselink, , op. cit. n. 77, at p. 27).Google Scholar

79. Hesselink, , op. cit. n. 77, at p. 12Google Scholar. Hesselink mentions a fourth purpose: ‘A fourth, and in my view highly important, purpose of the Principles of European Contract Law is not mentioned as such among the Commission’s aspirations: they may provide us with a common European language for discussions on contract law.’

80. Strictly speaking, it would be better to use the term ‘intended applications’ of the knowledge obtained rather than the term ‘objective’, since the only objective of a comparative research project is to obtain knowledge and all other ‘objectives’ are in fact intended applications. However, since the term ‘objective’ is commonly used in both senses, I will use it to refer to both the direct objective of the comparison (to obtain knowledge) and the intended application of the knowledge obtained.

81. By tertium comparationis is meant a feature that two or more objects have in common. Most authors are of the opinion that to ascertain comparability in comparative law this feature must be the function of the objects to be compared. Some authors name ‘structure’ and ‘consequences’ as features that can constitute comparability as well. See Oderkerk, , op. cit. n. 68, at pp. 6188, 233–239.Google Scholar

82. This conclusion is drawn by the comparatist herself (Iest, K., Klachtrecht van de individuele werknemer. Rechtsvergelijkend onderzoek naar klachtprocedures in Amerikaanse en Nederlandse ondernemingen [Grievance Law of the Individual Employee. A Comparative Legal Study on Grievance Procedures in American and Dutch Companies] (Deventer, Kluwer 1991) pp. 119120).Google Scholar

83. In my opinion, the functions of the regulations under analysis do not always have to be equivalent. Only in cases in which the objective of the research project is law reform does the function of the regulations under analysis need to be equivalent. Of course, the majority of research projects will have this objective. There are, however, projects that will have objectives like the determination of the influence of ideology on the development of the function of a certain rule. In these cases, the function of the regulations need not to be equivalent; indeed it will be more interesting if the form of the regulations are equivalent but their functions differ.

84. Cf, Dijk, Van, op. cit. n. 31, at p. 82.Google Scholar

85. Drobnig, , op. cit. n. 5, at pp. 221233. Cf, section 2.2.2.Google Scholar

86. Zweigert, and Kotz, , op. cit. n. 10, at p. 33.Google Scholar