The Law of Portugal is the legal system that applies to Portugal. It is part of the family of the civil law legal systems, based on Roman law. As such, it has many common features with the legal systems found in most of the countries in Continental Europe.

In the 19th century, the French civil law was the main influence in the Law of Portugal. However, since the early 20th century, the major influence has been the German civil law. This growing of the Germanistic influence was mainly driven by works on civil law developed by legal theorists of the University of Coimbra under the leadership of professor Guilherme Alves Moreira, who published his decisive Instituições de Direito Civil from 1906 to 1916. European Union law is now a major driving force in many respects, such as corporate law, administrative law and civil procedure.

The Law of Portugal is the basis or, at least, influences more or less sharply the legal systems of the several countries of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries and of some other territories that were once part of the Portuguese Empire. Therefore, these legal systems share many common features which, occasionally, makes them to be considered as a separate branch (Lusophone Legal System) in the scope of the wider family of civil law legal systems.

The main Portuguese laws include the Constitution (1976, as amended), the Civil Code (1966, as amended), the Penal Code (1982, as amended), the Labor Code (2003, as amended) and the Commercial Societies Code (1986, as amended). The Commercial Code (1888, as amended) and the Administrative Code (1945, as amended) used to have a high importance in the past, but are now largely obsolete and partially replaced by new legislation.


As in most other European medieval countries, Portugal did not have centralized political institutions with the means to enact laws to regulate everyday legal issues. Both the wars against Castile and the Reconquista turned the Crown and the Court into an army permanently on the move. Some Portuguese legal historians claim that in the first two centuries after the Treaty of Zamora in 1143—in which the León recognized Portuguese de facto sovereignty—the kingdom’s political power was that of a “Warrior-State” that neither could, nor did, direct its resources to the organization of administrative institutions or to the productions of laws.

An exception to this fact were the three laws enacted by King Afonso II in 1211 during the Cortes of Coimbra.

During most of Portuguese legal history, Portugal and its colonies had an ancient legal system based on a double foundation of medieval local customary law and Roman law, mostly derived from the Corpus iuris civilis.

Modern Era

After the Carnation Revolution in 1974, the Portuguese legal system was changed due to the new political and civil demands. The new Constitution approved in 1976, was written under a myriad of communist and socialist-inspired ideologies and bias in order to replace the previous regime’s system. For a number of years, the country bounced between socialism and adherence to the neoliberal model. Land reform and nationalizations were enforced. Until the constitutional revisions of 1982 and 1989, the Constitution was a highly charged ideological document with numerous references to socialism, the rights of workers and the desirability of a socialist economy.

The sharp increase of the number of lawyers and judicial state-employees throughout the following decades did not produce increased efficiency in the legal system. The proliferation of both private and public law schools created a massive increase of numerus clausus vacancies for new law students across the whole country year after year, together with lower admission selectivity and a downgrade of academic integrity. Already internationally known for decades as excruciatingly slow and inefficient for European Union and USA standards, Portugal’s justice system was by 2011 the second slowest in Western Europe after Italy’s, even though it has one of the highest rates of judges and prosecutors, over 30 per 100,000 people, a feature that plagued the entire Portuguese public service, reputed for its overcapacity, useless redundancies and a general lack of productivity as a whole. After the collapse of the Portuguese public finances and banking system in 2011 amid the larger European sovereign debt crisis that impelled Portugal to European Union-International Monetary Fund state bailout, many reforms were put in place and measures to cut down costs and increase productivity were enforced across the entire public service. The number of district courts were slashed to 23 from 320, pooling their work in larger centers and closing courts in rural areas where the population has shrunk since the system was established in 1837. Courts were also reorganized to specialize to deal with labor or trade issues.

Main laws of Portugal

From the countless loose legislation, stands out a number of legal codes that constitute the framework of the various branches of the Law of Portugal.

The principal law of Portugal is the Constitution (1976), which also constitutes the framework of the branch of constitutional law.

Regarding the other major branches of the law, they are mainly covered by the following codes:

  • Criminal and criminal procedure – the Penal Code (1982), the Penal Procedure Code (1987), the Military Justice Code (2003) and the Sentence and Custodial Measures Execution Code (2009);
  • Civil and civil procedure – the Civil Code (1966), the Civil Procedure Code (2004) and the Civil Register Code (1995);
  • Labour law – the Labour Code (2003) and the Labour Procedure Code (1999);
  • Administrative law – the Administrative Procedure Code (1991), the Public Contracts Code (2008), the Administrative Courts Procedure Code (2002) and the Administrative Code (1945, still partially effective but now largely obsolete);
  • Commercial law – the Commercial Register Code (1986) and the Commercial Code (1888, still partially effective but now largely obsolete);
  • Corporate law – the Commercial Societies Code (1986);
  • Tax law – the Tax over Added Value Code (1984), the Tax over Single Persons Income Code (1988), the Tax over Collective Persons Income Code (1988) and the Tax Courts Procedure Code (1999);
  • Entertainment law – the Advertisement Code (1990);
  • Transport law – the Road Code (2005);
  • Intellectual property law – the Industrial Property Code (1995) and the Copyright and Related Rights Code (1985).

Education, training and research in law

Portugal has a number of both public and private schools of Law. The oldest is the Faculty of Law of the University of Coimbra, which dates back to the 13th century.

Both the faculties of Law of the University of Lisbon and of the University of Coimbra are nowadays the most reputed, thanks to the number of highly distinguished alumni and professors linked to them. Lisbon’s faculty is linked to personalities such as Marcelo Caetano, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, António de Menezes Cordeiro, Jorge Miranda, António Vitorino, José Manuel Barroso, Adriano Moreira and Mário Soares. Coimbra’s faculty is linked to personalities like António de Oliveira Salazar, Laura Rio and Almeida Santos.

The School of Law of the Portuguese Catholic University is also highly reputed, achieving notability by its academic publications, the curriculum of its teaching staff and the number of well-connected alumni it harbors. Both the Faculty of Law the Nova University and the School of Law of the Minho University are considered modern law schools with an increasingly higher reputation.

In the 1990s, the offer of law degrees in Portugal became widespread across the entire country through both public and private university institutions. By 2010, lower selectiveness and academic integrity levels, including in law schools previously known for its reputation and prestige, debased the average teaching of law in Portugal according to the head of the Ordem dos Advogados Marinho Pinto.