Legal Dictionary

conflict of laws

Legal Definition of conflict of laws

Related terms

Definition of conflict of laws

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Conflict of laws (or private international law) is a set of procedural rules that determines which legal system and which jurisdiction's applies to a given dispute. The rules typically apply when a legal dispute has a "foreign" element such as a contract agreed to by parties located in different countries, although the "foreign" element also exists in multi-jurisdictional countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

The term conflict of laws itself originates from situations where the ultimate outcome of a legal dispute depended upon which law applied, and the common law courts manner of resolving the conflict between those laws. In civil law lawyers and legal scholars refer to conflict of laws as private international law. Private international law has no real connection with public international law, and is instead a feature of municipal law which varies from country to country.

The three branches of conflict of laws are

  • Jurisdiction - whether the forum court has the power to resolve the dispute at hand
  • Choice of law - the law which is being applied to resolve the dispute
  • Foreign judgements - the ability to recognise and enforce a judgement from an external forum within the jurisdiction of the adjudicating forum


Its three different names - conflict of laws, private international law, and international private law - are generally interchangeable, although none of them is wholly accurate or properly descriptive. The term conflict of laws is primarily used in jurisdictions of the Common Law legal tradition, such as in the United States, England, Canada, and Australia. Private international law (droit international privé) is used in France, as well as in Italy, Greece, and the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries. International private law (internationales Privatrecht) is used in Germany (along with other German-speaking countries), Russia and Scotland.

Within the federal systems where legal conflicts among federal states require resolution, as in the United States, the term conflict of laws is preferred simply because such cases do not involve an international issue. Hence, conflict of laws is a general term to refer to disparities among laws, regardless of whether the relevant legal systems are international or inter-state. The term, however, can be misleading when it refers to resolution of conflicts between competing systems rather than "conflict" itself. The term private international law was coined by American lawyer and judge Joseph Story, but was abandoned subsequently by common law scholars and embraced by civil law lawyers.

The stages in a conflict case

  1. The court must first decide whether it has jurisdiction and, if so, whether it is the appropriate venue given the problem of forum shopping.
  2. The next step is the characterisation of the cause of action into its component legal categories which may sometimes involve an incidental question (also note the distinction between procedural and substantive laws).
  3. Each legal category has one or more choice of law rules to determine which of the competing laws should be applied to each issue. A key element in this may be the rules on renvoi.
  4. Once the applicable law is decided, that law must be proved before the forum court and applied to reach a judgment.
  5. The successful party must then enforce the judgment which will first involve the task of securing cross-border recognition of the judgment.

In those states with an underdeveloped set of Conflict rules, decisions on jurisdiction tend to be made on an ad hoc basis, with such choice of law rules as have been developed embedded into each subject area of private law and tending to favour the application of the lex fori or local law. In states with a more mature system, the set of Conflict rules stands apart from the local private civil law and adopts a more international point of view both in its terminology and concepts. For example, in the European Union, all major jurisdictional matters are regulated under the Brussels Regime, e.g. the rule of lis alibi pendens from Brussels 1 Regulation applies in the Member States and its interpretation is controlled by the European Court of Justice rather than by local courts. That and other elements of the Conflict rules are produced supranationally and implemented by treaty or convention. Because these rules are directly connected with aspects of sovereignty and the extraterritorial application of laws in the courts of the signatory states, they take on a flavour of public rather than private law because each state is compromising the usual expectations of their own citizens that they will have access to their local courts, and that local laws will apply in those local courts. Such aspects of public policy have direct constitutional significance whether applied in the European context or in federated nations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia where the courts have to contend not only with jurisdiction and law conflicts between the constituent states or territories, but also as between state and federal courts, and as between constituent states and relevant laws from other states outside the federation.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


1.     lex fori
2.     landed property
3.     salacious
4.     lex situs
5.     lex causae
6.     violent crime
7.     conscionable
8.     family court
9.     leasing
10.     public liability