Legal Dictionary

criminal code

Legal Definition of criminal code


Definition of criminal code

Further reading

A criminal code (or penal code) is a document which compiles all, or a significant amount of, a particular jurisdiction's criminal law. Typically a criminal code will contain offences which are recognised in the jurisdiction, penalties which might be imposed for these offences and some general provisions (such as definitions and prohibitions on retroactive prosecution).

Criminal codes are relatively common in civil law jurisdictions, which tend to build legal systems around codes and principles which are relatively abstract and apply them on a case by case basis. Conversely they are rare in common law jurisdictions.

The proposed introduction of a criminal code in England and Wales was a significant project of the Law Commission from 1968 to 2008. Due to the strong tradition of precedent in the jurisdiction and consequently the large number of binding judgements and ambiguous 'common law offences', as well as the often inconsistent nature of English law - the creation of a satisfactory code became very difficult. The project was officially abandoned in 2008 although as of 2009 it has been revived.

In the United States a Model Penal Code exists which is not itself law but which provides the basis for the criminal law of many states. Individual states often choose to make use of criminal codes which are often based, to a varying extent on the model code. Title 18 of the United States Code is the criminal code for federal crimes.

Criminal codes are generally supported for their introduction of consistency to legal systems and for making the criminal law more accessible to laypeople. A code may help avoid a chilling effect where legislation and case law appears to be either inaccessible or beyond comprehension to non-lawyers. Alternatively critics have argued that codes are too rigid and that they fail to provide enough flexibility for the law to be effective.

The term "penal code" (code pénal) derives from the French Penal Code of 1791.

By country

  • Australia Australian criminal codes (The states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia do not use codes; the Commonwealth is in transition.)
  • Belarus Criminal Code of Belarus
  • Brazil Penal code of Brazil
  • British Virgin Islands British Virgin Islands Criminal Code
  • Canada Criminal Code of Canada
  • Chile Criminal Code of Chile
  • Denmark Danish penalty law
  • England English Criminal Code, a draft has existed since 1989 but, though debated since 1818, has never been enacted.
  • Finland Criminal Code of Finland
  • France French Penal Code
  • Germany German Criminal Code
  • India Indian Penal Code
  • Iran Iranian Criminal Code
  • Iraq Iraqi Penal Code
  • Italy Italian Penal Code
  • Japan Criminal Code of Japan
  • Malta Criminal Code of Malta, enacted in 1854.
  • Mexico Mexican Penal Code, enacted on August 14th, 1931.
  • Pakistan Pakistan Penal Code
  • Philippines Revised Penal Code of the Philippines
  • Poland Polish Penal Code
  • Singapore Penal Code (Singapore)
  • Russia Criminal Code of Russia
  • Ukraine Criminal Code of Ukraine
  • United States Title 18 of the United States Code
  • United States Model Penal Code by the American Law Institute


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


1.     lex situs
2.     lex causae
3.     lex loci celebrationis
4.     lex domicilii
5.     lex patriae
6.     AORO
7.     Miranda warning
8.     adjudication order
9.     juvenile delinquency
10.     religious law