Customary Law Definition

Discover the significance of customary law in preserving cultural traditions and resolving disputes. Explore examples, case studies, and statistics on this unique legal system.

Introduction to Customary Law

Customary law is a set of unwritten laws that are based on societal customs, traditions, and practices. It often governs a specific group or community and may vary from one culture to another. In many cases, customary law coexists with formal legal systems and plays a crucial role in resolving disputes and maintaining social order.

Key Characteristics of Customary Law

  • Oral Tradition: Customary laws are typically passed down orally from generation to generation.
  • Community-Based: Customary law is specific to particular communities or groups and reflects their unique values and norms.
  • Flexible and Adaptive: Customary law evolves over time and can adapt to changing circumstances and societal needs.

Examples of Customary Law

One example of customary law is the Maasai tribe in Kenya, where disputes are resolved through community meetings and negotiations rather than formal court systems. Another example is the Indigenous Customary Law of Australia, which recognizes traditional practices and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Case Studies

In South Africa, the recognition of customary law has been a significant development in promoting legal pluralism and cultural diversity. The landmark case of Bhe v Magistrate, Khayelitsha highlighted the importance of customary law in addressing issues related to family law and inheritance.

Statistics on Customary Law

According to a study by the World Bank, over 60% of the world’s population relies on customary law for dispute resolution and governance. In some countries, customary law accounts for a significant portion of legal cases heard by courts.


Customary law plays a critical role in preserving cultural identity, promoting social cohesion, and enhancing access to justice for many communities around the world. Understanding and recognizing customary law is essential for promoting legal pluralism and upholding the rights of diverse populations.

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