The Law Portal

Lady Justice, often used as a personification of the law, holding a sword in one scales in the other.

Law commonly refers to a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, with its precise definition a matter of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and the art of justice. State-enforced laws can be made by a group legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent, usually in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals may create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation. The creation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.

Legal systems vary between countries, with their differences analysed in comparative law. In civil law jurisdictions, a legislature or other central body codifies and consolidates the law. In common law systems, judges make binding case law through precedent, although on occasion this may be overturned by a higher court or the legislature. Historically, religious law influenced secular matters, and is still used in some religious communities. Sharia law based on Islamic principles is used as the primary legal system in several countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Law's scope can be divided into two domains. Public law concerns government and society, including constitutional law, administrative law, and criminal law. Private law deals with legal disputes between individuals and/or organisations in areas such as contracts, property, torts/delicts and commercial law. This distinction is stronger in civil law countries, particularly those with a separate system of administrative courts; by contrast, the public-private law divide is less pronounced in common law jurisdictions.

Law provides a source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness, and justice.

Selected article

A painting of King Stanisław August entering St. John's Cathedral

The Constitution of 3 May 1791 (Polish: Konstytucja 3 maja, Belarusian: Канстытуцыя 3 мая (official) / 3 траўня (Taraškievica), transcription: Kanstytucyja 3 maja / 3 traŭnia, Lithuanian: Gegužės trečiosios konstitucija listen), officially known at the time as Governance Act (Polish: Ustawa Rządowa), was a constitution adopted by the Great Sejm ("Four-Year Sejm", meeting in 1788–92) for the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a dual monarchy comprising the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Constitution was designed to correct the Commonwealth's political flaws. It had been preceded by a period of agitation for—and gradual introduction of—reforms, beginning with the Convocation Sejm of 1764 and the ensuing election that year of Stanisław August Poniatowski the Commonwealth's last king.

The Constitution sought to implement a more effective constitutional monarchy, introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility, and placed the peasants under the government's protection, mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom. It banned pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto, which had put the Sejm at the mercy of any single deputy, who could veto and thus undo all the legislation adopted by that Sejm. The Commonwealth's neighbours reacted with hostility to the adoption of the Constitution. King Frederick William II broke Prussia's alliance with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He joined with Catherine the Great's Imperial Russia and the Targowica Confederation of anti-reform Polish magnates to defeat the Commonwealth in the Polish–Russian War of 1792.

The 1791 Constitution was in force for less than 19 months. It was declared null and void by the Grodno Sejm that met in 1793, though the Sejm's legal power to do so was questionable. The Second and Third Partitions of Poland (1793, 1795) ultimately ended Poland's sovereign existence until the close of World War I in 1918. Over those 123 years, the 1791 Constitution helped keep alive Polish aspirations for the eventual restoration of the country's sovereignty. In the words of two of its principal authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, the 1791 Constitution was "the last will and testament of the expiring Homeland." (more...)

Selected biography

A black and white photograph of Birkett

William Norman Birkett, 1st Baron Birkett, Kt, PC, QC (6 September 1883 – 10 February 1962) was a British barrister, judge, politician and preacher who served as the alternate British judge during the Nuremberg Trials.

Birkett received his education at Barrow-in-Furness Higher Grade School. He was a Methodist preacher and a draper before attending Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1907, to study theology, history and law. Upon graduating in 1910 he worked as a secretary and was called to the Bar in 1913.

Declared medically unfit for military service during World War I, Birkett used the time to make up for his late entry into the legal profession and was appointed a King's Counsel in 1924. He became a criminal defence lawyer and acted as counsel in a number of famous cases including the second of the Brighton trunk murders. A member of the Liberal Party, he sat in Parliament for Nottingham East twice, first in 1923 and again in 1929.

Despite refusing appointment to the High Court of Justice in 1928, he was offered the position again in 1941 and accepted, joining the King's Bench Division. In 1945 he served as the alternate British judge at the Nuremberg trials, and he was made a Privy Counsellor in 1947. He joined the Court of Appeal (England and Wales) in 1950 but retired in 1956 when he had served for long enough to draw a pension. From 1958 he served in the House of Lords, and his speech against a private bill in 1962 saw it defeated by 70 votes to 36, two days before he died on 10 February 1962. (more...)

What is a statute?

A statute is a formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs the legal entities of a city, state, or country by way of consent. Typically, statutes command or prohibit something, or declare policy. Statutes are rules made by legislative bodies; they are distinguished from case law or precedent, which is decided by courts, and regulations issued by government agencies. Learn more about statutes...

Following is an example of a noted statute or comparable written law:


Drawing of people regarding carved tablets.

The Law of the Twelve Tables (Latin: Leges Duodecim Tabularum or Duodecim Tabulae) was the legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law. The Tables consolidated earlier traditions into an enduring set of laws.

Displayed in the Forum, "The Twelve Tables" stated the rights and duties of the Roman citizen. Their formulation was the result of considerable agitation by the plebeian class, who had hitherto been excluded from the higher benefits of the Republic. The law had previously been unwritten and exclusively interpreted by upper-class priests, the pontifices. Something of the regard with which later Romans came to view the Twelve Tables is captured in the remark of Cicero (106–43 BC) that the "Twelve Tables...seems to me, assuredly to surpass the libraries of all the philosophers, both in weight of authority, and in plenitude of utility". Cicero scarcely exaggerated; the Twelve Tables formed the basis of Roman law for a thousand years.

The Twelve Tables are sufficiently comprehensive that their substance has been described as a 'code', although modern scholars consider this characterization exaggerated. The Tables were a sequence of definitions of various private rights and procedures. They generally took for granted such things as the institutions of the family and various rituals for formal transactions. The provisions were often highly specific and diverse. (more...)


Did you know...

Black and white photograph of a seated woman in traditional Indian dress.

  • ... that the non-payment of debts is the archetype for the seventeen other Hindu titles of law, including that of sexual crimes against women?

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What is case law?

Case law is the collection of past legal decisions written by courts and similar tribunals in the course of deciding cases, in which the law was analyzed using these cases to resolve ambiguities for deciding current cases. These past decisions are called "case law", or precedent. Stare decisis—a Latin phrase meaning “let the decision stand”—is the principle by which judges are bound to such past decisions. These judicial interpretations are distinguished from statutory law, which are codes enacted by legislative bodies, and regulatory law, which are established by executive agencies based on statutes. In some jurisdictions, case law can be applied to ongoing adjudication; for example, criminal proceedings or family law.

In common law countries (including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), the term case law is a near-exact synonym for common law. It is used for judicial decisions of selected appellate courts, courts of first instance, agency tribunals, and other bodies discharging adjudicatory functions.

Learn more about case law...

For examples of noted cases, see Lists of case law. Following is one example of such a noted case:


A portrait of Lord Hardwicke

Gyles v Wilcox was a decision in 1740 of the Court of Chancery of England that established the doctrine of fair abridgement, which would later evolve into the concept of fair use. The case concerned Fletcher Gyles, a bookseller who had published a copy of Matthew Hale's Pleas of the Crown. Soon after the initial publication, the publishers Wilcox and Nutt hired a writer named Barrow to abridge the book, and repackaged it as Modern Crown Law. Gyles sued for a stay on the book's publishing, claiming his rights under the Statute of Anne had been infringed. The main issues in the case were whether or not abridgements of a work were inherently pirated copies, or whether they could qualify as a separate, new work. Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, ruled that abridgements fell under two categories: "true abridgements" and "coloured shortenings". True abridgements presented a true effort on the part of the editor, and by this effort, constituted a new work which did not infringe upon the copyright of the original. He ruled that Modern Crown Law was not a true abridgement, but merely a piracy intending to circumvent the law. The case established the common law doctrine of fair abridgement, and recognised the author's right to a work through the nature of the labour it took to produce it, shifting copyright away from publishing rights and towards the idea of serving the greater good by encouraging the production of new, useful works. (more...)


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