Customary Law: Meaning & Significance

Customary law is fundamental to the very identity of indigenous peoples and local communities. Customary law can cover a wide range of topics, including how natural resources are used and accessed, the rights and responsibilities associated with land, inheritance of property, how spiritual life is lived, the preservation of cultural legacies and knowledge systems, and many other topics. Maintaining customary laws can be essential for the survival of indigenous peoples' intellectual, cultural, and spiritual heritage. These groups have also called for different forms of respect for and recognition of customary laws outside the confines of their own communities, such as in claims to land and natural resources.

What is Customary Law?

Customary law is always evolving one of the key characteristics of customary law is its adaptability and capacity for change throughout time. Traditional authorities have the authority to create new customary laws as well as amend or repeal existing customs. Customary law, however, must be viewed in the context of the community. It is sometimes referred to as "living law" because it must take into account a community's current customs in order to be properly understood by that community.

  • A legal custom is a recognized pattern of conduct that is observable in a specific social context. The defense of "what has always been done and approved by law" may be used in support of a claim.

  • Customary law is the body of norms, practices, and beliefs that a community accepts as binding codes of conduct. Indigenous peoples' and local communities' social and economic structures, as well as their way of life, are fundamentally influenced by customary law.

Sources of Customary Law

The following circumstances give rise to customary law, unofficial law, or consuetudinary −

  • Where a particular legal procedure is followed

  • When the relevant parties view it as a law.

The majority of customary laws deal with community standards that have long been present in society. However, where a set of rules has gained widespread agreement, customary laws may also apply to some areas of international law.

Court decisions and case law that uphold customary laws typically give them more authority as laws.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Customary Law

The given table illustrates the major advantages and disadvantages of customary law 

Advantages of Customary Law Disadvantages of Customary Law

For those who reside in rural locations, customary law is frequently the type of law that is easiest to acquire. Customary court procedures are frequently performed in local languages, and the underlying concepts are frequently simple enough for community members to comprehend. Cases in community courts have relatively low expenses.

Historically, men and women have not been treated equally by customary law. Even today, in some communities, a male relative must help a woman present a case before a customary court.

The goal of customary law is frequently to reach an agreement and understanding among all parties so that the community can coexist happily. The proceedings frequently require flexibility and negotiation and are more casual than those in other courts.

Customary judicial processes may not always adhere to the standards for fair hearings because they are informal. Additionally, because customary law is so flexible, it might be more challenging to ensure that others who have done identical wrongs receive treatment in a consistent manner. Even within the same ethnic group, communities may differ in the specifics of some customary law laws.

Criminal and civil cases are not divided in accordance with customary law. Frequently, a single customary law proceeding will lead to a payment that serves as both a punishment for wrongdoing and restitution for the harm done to the victim.

It's possible that the payment of compensation won't be enough to keep the community's members safe from further violence or recklessness. Rich people can easily buy their way out of trouble when wrongdoing is punished through compensation. Additionally, rather than going to the person who was harmed directly, compensation might instead go to the family of the wronged person.

Codification of Customary Law

The customs of medieval citizens eventually gave rise to the present codification of civil law. The local jurists then recorded these after progressively piecing them together from the case laws. A community's regulations of particular rights, privileges, and duties became unquestionable laws when they were enacted by the community as a whole.


Traditional knowledge cannot be effectively protected at a global level alone. Adoption of pertinent national traditional knowledge laws and policies must reflect the commitment of national decision-makers to advancing such protection at the international level. To safeguard the ownership rights to common traditional knowledge that indigenous peoples and local communities in several states hold, regional legislation and policy will be crucial. The long-term preservation of traditional knowledge necessitates the continued use of traditional knowledge by indigenous peoples and local communities, the formulation of policies for managing traditional knowledge, and the creation of community-managed traditional knowledge databases.

The safeguarding of traditional knowledge depends on the enactment of laws and development strategies that give local communities and indigenous peoples the authority to manage their traditional knowledge in line with customary law.

Frequently Asked Question

Q1. What do you mean by customary law?

Ans: Customary law is a body of norms, practices, and beliefs that local communities and indigenous peoples adopt as binding codes of behavior. Customary law shapes their social, economic, and way of life fundamentally. 

Q2. What does customary mean in law?

Ans: Defined as "law consisting of accepted customs as obligatory rules of conduct or as legal requirements."

Q3. Which law is customary law?

Ans: A body of law known as "customary law" has rules that seem to be well-established and widely regarded. Customary law, according to general consensus, is a body of law that reflects the customs, cultures, and mindsets of the population it governs.

Q4. What is the benefit of customary law?

Ans: They can specify the duties and rights of local communities and members of indigenous peoples with regard to crucial facets of their way of life, culture, and worldview.

Q5. Does customary law still play an important role in our law today?

Ans: "Customary law must now be viewed as an essential component of our law, as opposed to historically being viewed through the lens of common law." Like all laws, it is ultimately subject to the Constitution's protection and legitimacy. "Its legality must now be assessed in light of the Constitution rather than common law."

Updated on: 16-Jan-2023

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