Government unveils draft of new Civil Code, ten years in the making

Jiří Pospíšil und Petr Nečas (Foto: ČTK)

On Monday the government presented what it hopes is the final draft of crucial legislation that has been in progress for a decade – the Czech Republic’s new Civil Code, the collection of laws that govern all aspects of private law. The aim has been to update the original, which comes from 1964, and to unify the many laws that have since then become parts of other legal codices like the Labour Code, acts on families and marriage, residential ownership, economic relations and more.

Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil, Prime Minister Petr Nečas, photo: CTK
Generally speaking, the new civil code is the tidying up of a messy set of laws, left in part by the communist era. The makers of the new codex, who have spent the last ten years on it, have tried to return to a more traditional concept, more like continental law as used in neighbouring Western countries. Streamlining private law like this was actually an aim of the First Republic that the communist takeover did away with in 1948. Since then, many laws that cover the same points, for example, by the commercial code or the labour code. There has also been an effort made to make the language simpler for non-lawyers. Overall, marks the largest change to personal law in the last fifty years and it will have far-reaching effects.

The core of the new code has three main parts: family, ownership and contractual rights. In terms of family, some of the more substantive changes include allowing a person to be of legal age from 16 instead of 18, provided they prove they can sustain themselves. It would also be possible to adopt an adult. Partners could prevent each other from investing joint property in business ventures. A person who is dying could change their wills in the presence of witnesses – no notary public is necessary.

Where property is concerned there is more emphasis on bona fide acts, or acts of good faith. For example, a person who buys a car that turns out to have been stolen may retain ownership of it, if it is proved he purchased it in good faith. Land and buildings will no longer be considered separate, nor can they have separate owners, and there are also things that, as Justice Minister Pospíšil said, seem like banalities but are in fact things that justice has to deal with, for example if a person loses a thing that has a low monetary value but a high subjective, or emotional value – like a the last picture of a deceased relative in a stolen car, say – the victim can also seek special compensation.

And lastly, contractual law is a huge category – suffice to say there are changes for joint stock companies which would no longer have to have supervisory committees, courts could determine the amount of contractual fines, and the weaker party in a contract is protected in cases like, for example when important clauses are written in small print, and much more.

'The Civil Code'
The new Civil Code has been very long in the making. The late ombudsman Otakar Motejl began working on it in early 2001, and all parties are anxious to finally see the new code come to fruition. This is however only a draft at present. It will be discussed by the government next week before going to Parliament later this year, where if passed it could feasibly be in place by the first day of 2013. The main complaint from both the opposition and other critics has been against the tremendous sudden change of so many things, that the public maybe uncertain for a long time what their rights are, what the law is, and law professionals may be equally bewildered.