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Contract Law: A Comparative Introduction, Chapter 1
Jan M. Smits
Maastricht University Faculty of Law - Maastricht European Private Law Institute (M-EPLI)
Contract Law: A Comparative Introduction, Chapter 1 (pp. 3-15), Edward Elgar Publishing 2014
Over the last two hundred years or so, contract law has been mainly national in contents and outlook. This is reflected in the abundance of textbooks on the contract law of national jurisdictions. These textbooks introduce students to the national contract law of their own country in their own language. Next to these traditional books, there is an increasing number of texts available that offer a comparative, European or even global perspective on the law of contract – invariably designed to cater for the needs of students who are already familiar with the fundamentals of contract law. The book of which one chapter is presented here seeks to combine the two: it introduces students to the field of contract law by way of a comparative approach. It assumes that contract law is an international discipline that can be taught on basis of common principles and methods, just like economics, psychology or any other field of academic study. There are two reasons why this approach is adopted.
First, substantive law is no longer the exclusive product of the nation-state and introductory textbooks should reflect this. In particular in the context of the European Union, law is shaped as much by the national legislators and courts of the 28 member states as it is by the European legislature and the Court of Justice of the European Union. At a global scale, the role of private regulation and of the CISG is increasing, as is the potential for choice of the legal regime applicable to the contract. All this reduces the self-evidence of teaching contract law on basis of the intricacies of one national law alone. Most of today’s law students will spend their professional life in a world in which knowledge of only one jurisdiction is not enough.
Second, learning the law is as much about learning a method as it is about mastering the substantive law. It arguably is more important to learn to ‘think like a lawyer’ than it is to know about the details of a court case or a statute that is likely to change anyway. In a similar way as economists do not focus on the study of one particular economy but adopt a method of analysis (‘the economic approach’), law is ideally not regarded as a subject but as a method. In this view, students no longer study German, English or Polish contract law, but simply ‘contract law’ by applying the legal approach towards the questions they are confronted with. This does not mean that the details of, or differences between, various legal systems are not discussed. To the contrary: it is exactly by looking at these similarities and differences among jurisdictions that one learns that much of the law is about exploring and contrasting the implications of conflicting views of what is right. It is this approach of focusing on arguments and policies that is at the core of the book this sample chapter is taken from. National laws are presented as variations on common themes and as alternative ways of dealing with some common problem. This text thus caters to the needs of the international classroom.