Conflict of law rules definition, which is also known as private international law, refers to how resolution is brought about when there are conflicting laws, based upon jurisdiction. This term “conflict of law” is largely used in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, whereas private international law is the verbiage most commonly used in other countries. Additionally, the term conflict of law is referring to those laws that are specifically national (meaning that they are specific to a particular nation) and not within the scope of international law.

When Might Conflict of Law Occur?

These conflicts may arise as the result of differences in laws between states, state law versus federal law, or United States law versus the laws of other countries or territories. Particularly within conflict of law on an international scale, the laws of each country are essentially a reflection upon that society's values. As such, the laws from one country to another can be quite different. In addition to the issues surrounding the differences in laws from one country to the next, it can also create debate around jurisdiction should a legal issue arise, as all of the localities involved may try to claim jurisdiction.

It is worth noting that this can commonly occur within different states in the United States, who adhere to different laws on certain issues, such as capital punishment. When issues of conflict of law arise in the United States, between states that have different laws, the same questions, below, are required to be applied, per a ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

The questions that must be addressed in conflict of law are:

  • Which country’s court has jurisdiction when a legal matter arises that involves more than one country?
  • What law is going to be applied to the particular issue, once the proper court has been determined? (This is frequently called “classification” or “characterization.”)
  • How will the court enforce the judgment, should the case be settled in favor of the plaintiff?

These can all be complex questions, without easy answers, especially depending upon the nature of the crime that was committed. For example, some countries are adamantly opposed to capital punishment, and therefore may seek to have jurisdiction, if the other country involved is one that practices capital punishment. Additionally, issues of national pride may arise when fighting for jurisdiction if the crime committed was one that caused a great deal of embarrassment to a certain country.

Differing Legal Systems

As explored, conflict of law occurs due to differing laws from one jurisdiction to the next. This commonly occurs when one country adheres to a common-law tradition, and the other adheres to a civil law tradition. For example, when it comes to contract law, there is no existing counterpart from civil law to common law.

Even among countries who have similar legal traditions, there can be marked differences. For example, while the United States and the United Kingdom are both common-law countries, and some of the methodologies may be quite similar, the laws that govern both nations may be quite different regarding how they are abided and executed. Germany and Switzerland are yet other examples of countries who have similar law traditions, thus similar methodology, but ultimate differences in the laws themselves.

Additionally, there may be marked differences even among those countries that are all considered to have a civil law tradition, depending upon whether they are considered Germanic, Nordic or Roman-Franco. For example, in Germany, laws are far more subjective when it comes to who is defined as a merchant, as it basically depends upon the individual and the situation. Meanwhile, in France, the laws are much more objective, meaning that the merchant is essentially defined by the particular transaction with which they are involved.

There are also many differences that exist between countries as to whether or not someone who could be identified as a “good faith purchaser” can obtain the title to stolen goods. Italy, for example, does permit the purchaser to obtain the title, provided they were unaware that the goods were stolen (hence, “good faith purchaser”), whereas countries such as Germany and Portugal do not. Meanwhile, countries such as France and Netherlands attempt to take a more holistic approach and allow the original owner to regain possession of their goods, but sometimes it is expected that the good faith purchaser be compensated for this.

Conflict of law, whether within the United States, or among different countries, can raise a lot of questions regarding jurisdiction, sentencing, and enforcement.

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