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The Italian legal system

11 June 2011, Nicola Canestrini

The Italian legal system is that of a civil law State, governed by codified law.  Italy's system of government is that of a parliamentary republic.

The Republic of Italy was formed upon the abolition of the monarchy by way of popular referendum on June 2, 1946. The Constitution of Italy was adopted on 22 December 1947. Power is divided between the executive, the legislative and judicial branches. The Italian Constitution establishes a balanced interaction between these branches, rather than a rigid separation.

Whilst State power is centralized to a great degree, Article 131 of the Italian Constitution divides the State into 20 regions, each conferred with limited governing power. Moreover, five regions, namely, Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige, Vale d'Aosta and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, have been granted extended autonomy by statute. The remaining fifteen regions were established in 1970 and are governed by regional "councils". Additionally, special legal status has been granted to the cities of Trento and Bolzano. This delegation of legislative and executive power has resulted in some mitigation of the strong centralization of power inherent in the Italian system of government.

The Head of State of Italy is the President of the Republic.

The President of the Republic is elected by Parliament at a joint session of members, for a term of seven years (Articles 83 and 85 of the Constitution). Article 87 of the Constitution stipulates that the President, amongst other duties, promulgates laws, issues legally binding decrees, calls for elections of the two Chambers of Parliament, authorizes the submission of bills proposed by the Government to Parliament and calls for referenda. The President is the Commander of the Armed Forces, declares war in the case of such a resolution by Government and is also the Chairman of the Superior Council of the Judiciary (discussed below). The President may also grant pardons and dissolve either or both Chambers of Parliament upon consultation with the Speakers. However, the power of dissolution may not be exercised in the last six months of his or her term of office, unless it coincides with the last six months of the term of office of either or both Chambers (as appropriate) (Article 88 of the Constitution). By virtue of Article 90 of the Constitution, the President may also be impeached by a majority vote of a joint session of Parliament for treason or attempted overthrow of the Constitution.



Legislative power is vested in Parliament, which is composed of two Chambers, that is, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate (Article 70 of the Constitution) (please note: "Parliament" and "Chambers" are referred to interchangeably).

The Chamber seats 630 deputies and 12 seats are reserved for the Italian constituencies living abroad (Article 56(3) of the Constitution). The Senate has 315 seats, with 6 reserved for Italian citizens living abroad (Article 57(2) of the Constitution). The houses of parliament are elected directly on the basis of universal suffrage. In practice, parliamentary voting takes place by way of a mixture of the majority and proportional systems and, in accordance with election legislation passed in 1993, this means that Italy has single-member districts for 75% of the seats in Parliament and the remaining 25% of seats are allotted on a proportional basis. Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are elected for a term of five years (Article 60(1) of the Constitution). The Constitution also provides for "senators for life" in two instances. In the first instance this will be any person who has held the office of the President of the Republic unless the person chooses to waive this privilege (Article 59 (1) of the Constitution). In the second, up to five people may be appointed by the President of the Republic for having brought honor to the nation for exceptional accomplishments in social, scientific, artistic and literary fields (Article 59(2) of the Constitution). Senators for life are appointed in addition to the 315 elected directly by the people.

The legislative autonomy of the Regions is spelled out in Article 117 of the Constitution.

Basically, pursuant to Article 117 (4) of the Constitution, the Regions are free to legislate on matters not governed by State law. Article 117 (2) lists the scope of legislative authority belonging only to the State. This includes matters such as foreign policy, defense forces, immigration, citizenship, State taxes, electoral law, courts, national boundaries etc. Concurrently, the State and the Regions legislate on matters such as foreign and EU relations with the Region, health protection, education, pension systems and many others (please see Article 117 (3) of the Constitution). The State may pass by-laws regarding the autonomous regions, so long as it does not effectively devolve such power to the regions. With regards to exclusive legislative power, a Region acting within its field of competence, may conclude agreements with foreign States and understandings with territorial entities that belong to a foreign State, in the cases and forms provided for by State law. Pursuant to Article 117(5) the Regions and Autonomous Provinces are responsible for the implementation and execution of international obligations and of the acts of the European Union, in accordance with the procedures set by State law. The Constitution also permits the State to act as a substitute to the Regions whenever they should fail to fulfil their responsibilities in this respect.



Executive power is exercised by the Government of the Republic and consists of the President of the Council and the ministers.

Together they are the Council of Ministers. The President of the Republic appoints the President of the Council and on his or her advice, also appoints the ministers. The Government must have the confidence of both Chambers. As such, a vote of confidence must be obtained in the ten days subsequent to the appointment of the Government (Article 94 of the Constitution). The President of the Council conducts and takes responsibility for the general policy of the Government. Each Minister is jointly responsible for the decisions of the Council of Ministers and individually for those of their own ministries. According to Article 94, the functioning of the Presidency of the Council and the number, organization and responsibilities of ministries are regulated by law.

The legislative process is set out in the Section Two of the Italian Constitution (Arts. 70-82).

According to these Articles, bills may be introduced upon the initiative of the Government, by each member of the two Chambers, as well as other organs and bodies specified in the Constitution. Bills may also be introduced by not less than 50,000 voters. Every bill that is introduced into one of the Chambers is, according to its Standing Orders, reviewed by a committee, which has been delegated with the task of approving the bills article by article, followed by a final vote. Bills considered urgent are dealt with through an abbreviated procedure established by the Standing Orders. Standing Orders may also delegate the procedure of review and examination of the bill to committees, which are composed in a manner adequately reflecting the size of parliamentary groups. Where review is delegated in this alternative manner, the bill, until finally voted upon, may be submitted to the full Chamber, if the Government, or one-tenth of the Chamber itself, or one fifth of the reviewing committee demand for the bill be debated or voted upon by the full Chamber. The bill may also be submitted to the full Chamber for its final vote of approval, preceded only by statements of vote. However, this alternative method may not be applied in all cases. Bills concerning constitutional matters, electoral law, the delegation of powers, or those authorizing ratification of international treaties or concerning approval of budgets must always be subjected to the ordinary procedure of debate and voting upon by each Chamber.

Laws are promulgated by the President of the Republic within a month of their passing through the Chambers (Article 73 of the Constitution). If the Chambers, by way of majority vote, declare the bill as urgent, it may be promulgated within the time frame set out in the bill itself. Laws are published immediately following promulgation and enter into force on the fifteenth day following publication, unless otherwise established by the law itself.

By virtue of Article 74, the President of the Republic may send the law back the Chamber with a request for review.

The request must be accompanied by a substantiation of the return. If the bill again passes through the Chambers, it will be promulgated.

The Italian Constitution allows both the delegation of legislative power and the issue of decrees having the force of law by the Government. It should be pointed out however, that the two provisions dealing with such delegation of legislative power to the Executive, are expressed as negative covenants, thus, emphasizing this delegation as a limited exception rather than a positive right. Firstly, Article 76 states that the power to legislate may not be delegated to the Government unless it is on the terms set out by the Parliament which define the principles of this delegation for a limited time and concerning a strictly defined subject matter. Secondly, Government may not issue decrees having the force of law unless duly and properly delegated by the Chambers. Thirdly, Article 77 addresses the situation of emergency decrees, whereby, if the Government issues a provisional measure having the force of law, it must submit such a decree to the Chambers on the very same day for conversion into law. Article 77 goes as far as establishing that even in the case where the Chambers (both houses of Parliament) have been dissolved, they must be expressly summoned for the purpose of approving a Government decree and meet within five days. If not converted into law by way of this procedure, decrees of this type will loose effect as of the date of issue within sixty days of their publication. However, the Chambers are given the option of approving laws to regulate the rights and obligations arising out of decrees that have not been properly converted into law.



Pursuant to Article 104 of the Constitution, "the judiciary constitutes an autonomous and independent organ and is not subject to any other power of the State".

The independence of the judiciary is ensured by an autonomous organ called the ?Consiglio Superiore della Magistura?. This supervisory organ is presided over by the President of the Republic and is composed of two members, that is, the Prosecutor General and the President of the Court of Cassation. The remaining members of this supervisory organ are elected (20 members are elected by judges and 10 by Parliament) amongst lawyers or university law professors. According to Article 105 of the Constitution the Consiglio Superiore della Magistura also participates in the recruitment processes, assignments, transfers, promotions and disciplinary actions of judges.

Judicial power in Italy is divided into two distinct categories, namely the ordinary jurisdiction and the special jurisdiction.

The ordinary jurisdiction includes all civil and criminal law matters that have not been otherwise deemed as coming within the scope of the special jurisdiction. Justice, in the ordinary jurisdiction is administered by career judges. There are four areas of law considered special jurisdictions. The first is the administrative jurisdiction exercised by the Regional Administrative Courts (Tribunali Amministrativi Regionali), which review administrative decisions taken by public authorities. The second is the State Auditors? Department (Corte dei Conti), which reviews matters concerning public accountancy. The third is the military jurisdiction exercised by the Military Courts (Tribunali Militari), by the Military Appeals Courts (Corti Militari di Appello) and by the Military Surveillance Courts (Tribunali Militari di Sorvegianza) in cases concerning military offences committed by members of the Armed Forces. Finally, fiscal jurisdiction is exercised by the Provincial Fiscal Commissions (Commissioni Tributarie Provinciali) and the District Fiscal Commissions (Commisioni Tributarie Distrettuali) in matters concerning taxation. Additionally, the Court of Assize has jurisdiction in serious criminal matters, and the Regional Courts and High Court of Waters have jurisdiction over all matters of dispute regarding water belonging to the Italian State.

The ordinary jurisdiction is exercised by Justices of the Peace (Giudice di pace), the trial Courts, the Court responsible for the enforcement of sentences, the Juvenile Court, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Cassation, which is the highest court of appeal in Italy.

Article 134 of the Constitution establishes the Constitutional Court, which has the authority to decide on matters concerning the constitutional legitimacy of law and acts having the force of law, adopted by the State and the autonomous Regions. It also decides upon any disputes arising over the allocation of powers between branches of Government within the State and the Regions as well as, between the Regions. The Constitutional Court is responsible for hearing accusations raised against the President of the Republic on the basis of the Constitution (Article 105 of the Constitution).

The Italian legal system is that of a civil law State, governed by codified law.

Membership in the European Union has resulted in the implementation of a system of ratification set out in Law No.183 1997, on the coordination of enforcement of EU legislation in the Italian national legal system. This aforementioned law requires the Prime Minister, or alternatively, the Minister for Community Policy to notify Parliament and the Regions of all new EU Directives within 30 days of their adoption. This policy also applies to the regions with special status (please see second paragraph above). The Government is under an obligation to inform Parliament about the compatibility of the Directives with Italian law within 90 days. Each year, the Minister for Community Policy must present the new law to Parliament before the 31 of January for ratification by 1 March (of each year). The regions with special status (as well as the cities with special status, namely Trento and Bolzano) have the discretion to adopt new Directives immediately as published in the Official Journal. 

In the case that Directives have not been implemented as required, by the Regions or autonomous cities, the Government may set up a Commission consisting of three members, which will be given ministerial competency to exercise the powers normally vested in the relevant Ministry.


Italy is:

OSCE Participating State since 25 June 1973
Member State of the United Nations since 14 December 1955
Member State of the Council of Europe since 5 May 1949
Member State of the European Union since 25 March 1957


Status of Ratification of the Main International Human Rights Treaties, Conventions and other instruments

Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (2004) 02 August 2006

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2003) 02 August 2006

UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2003) 02 August 2006

International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (2001) 16 April 2003

International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (2002) 27 March 2003

European Social Charter (revised) (1999) 01 September 1999

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002) 26 July 1999

Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to

Automatic Processing of Personal Data (1985) 01 July 1997

European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers (1983) 01 May 1995

Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty (1991) 14 February 1995

Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime (1993) 01 May 1994

Protocol No. 7 to the Convention for the Protection of Human

Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1988) 01 February 1992

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) 05 September 1991

Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons (1985) 01 October 1989

European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or

Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1989) 01 April 1989

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987) 12 January 1989

Protocol No.6 to the ECHR concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty (1985) 01 January 1989

European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism (1978) 01 June 1986

International Convention against Taking of Hostages (1983) 20 March 1986

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981) 10 June 1985

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981) 10 June 1985

Protocol No. 4 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, securing certain rights and freedoms other than those already included in the Convention and in the first Protocol thereto (1968) 27 May 1982

Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1951) 18 January 1980

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) 15 September 1978

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976) 15 September 1978

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) 05 January 1976

Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1954) 06 March 1968

European Social Charter (1965) 21 November 1965 European

Convention on Extradition (1960) 04 November 1963

Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1953) 26 October 1955

Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1954) 26 October 1955

Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1954) 15 November 1954

Information provided by www.legislationline.org, may 2010. 

Please note that this document could be out of date and that there exist significant problems with applying non-Italian terminology and concepts of law and justice to the Italian justice system.


For more information you may read:

- "Criminal Justice Systems in Europe and North America - ITALY" (HEUNIThe European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, affiliated with the United Nations, http://www.vn.fi/om/heuni, 2000).

- "Guide to Italian Legal Research and Resources on the Web", Fameli - Socci - Tega, Globalex, 2006 updated 2007 and 2011 (http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/italy1.htm).

Judicial systems of the European Union countriesAnalysis of data  by the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) . Council of Europe