Portal:Law
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Portal:Law

The Law Portal

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

Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been defined both as "the science of justice" and "the art of justice". Law regulates and ensures that individuals or a community adhere to the will of the state. State-enforced laws can be made by a collective legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that may elect to accept alternative arbitration to the normal court process. The formation 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.

A general distinction can be made between (a) civil law jurisdictions, in which a legislature or other central body codifies and consolidates their laws, and (b) common law systems, where judge-made precedent is accepted as binding law. Historically, religious laws played a significant role even in settling of secular matters, and is still used in some religious communities. Islamic Sharia law is the world's most widely used religious law, and is used as the primary legal system in some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The adjudication of the law is generally divided into two main areas. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to social order and in which the guilty party may be imprisoned or fined. Civil law (not to be confused with civil law jurisdictions above) deals with the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals and/or organizations.

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.

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The prison occupied two locations, the first c. 1329-1811, and the second 1811-1842. The image above is of the first Marshalsea in the 18th century.

The Marshalsea was a prison on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark, now part of London. From the 14th century until it closed in 1842, it housed men under court martial for crimes at sea, including those accused of "unnatural crimes," political figures and intellectuals accused of sedition, and--most famously--London's debtors, the length of their stay determined largely by the whim of their creditors.

Run privately for profit, as were all prisons in England until the 19th century, the Marshalsea looked like an Oxbridge college and functioned as an extortion racket. For prisoners who could pay, it came with access to a bar, shop, and restaurant, as well as the crucial privilege of being allowed out during the day, which meant debtors could earn money to satisfy their creditors. Everyone else was crammed into one of nine small rooms with dozens of others, possibly for decades for the most modest of debts, which increased as unpaid prison fees accumulated. A parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates had starved to death within a three-month period, and that eight to ten prisoners were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather. (more...)

Selected biography

Sir Aubrey Melford Steed Stevenson PC (17 October 1902 - 26 December 1987) was an English barrister and later a High Court judge, whose judicial career was marked by his controversial conduct and outspoken views. One of his fellow judges, Sir Robin Dunn, described him as "the worst judge since the war".

Stevenson became a High Court judge in 1957, and acquired a reputation for the severity of his sentencing. He sentenced the Kray twins to life imprisonment in 1969, with a recommendation that they serve not less than 30 years each. In 1970 Stevenson passed long sentences on eight Cambridge University students who took part in the Garden House riot, and the following year gave Jake Prescott of the Angry Brigade 15 years for conspiracy.

After Dunn's verbal attack, several high-profile legal figures came to Stevenson's defence, among them fellow judge and biographer Lord Roskill, who pointed out that Stevenson could be merciful to those he perceived to be victims. Lord Devlin described Stevenson as the "last of the grand eccentrics". Stevenson retired from the bench in 1979 aged 76, and died at St Leonards in East Sussex on 26 December 1987. (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:



The Law of the Twelve Tables (Lex Duodecim Tabularum, more informally simply Duodecim Tabulae) was the ancient legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law. The Law of the Twelve Tables formed the centrepiece of the constitution of the Roman Republic and the core of the mos maiorum. The Twelve Tables must be carefully distinguished from the unrelated, much older "twelve shields" of King Numa Pompilius.

According to traditional, semi-legendary historical accounts preserved in Livy, during the earliest period of the Republic the laws were kept secret by the pontifices and other representatives of the patrician class, and were enforced with untoward severity, especially against the plebeian class. A plebeian named Terentilius proposed in 462 BC that an official legal code should be published, so that plebeians could not be surprised and would know the law. (more...)


Did you know...

  • ... that, in the cases of Klayman v. Obama and ACLU v. Clapper, US district courts issued conflicting rulings on the constitutionality of bulk data collection by the US government?
  • ... that in 2011, Nitehawk Cinema successfully lobbied to overturn a Prohibition-era liquor law that prevented movie theaters in New York from serving alcohol?

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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 and fill gaps to set rules 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:


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Al-Kateb v Godwin was a decision of the High Court of Australia, which ruled on 6 August 2004 that the indefinite detention of a stateless person was lawful. The case concerned Ahmed Al-Kateb, a Palestinian man born in Kuwait, who moved to Australia in 2000 and applied for a temporary protection visa. The Commonwealth Minister for Immigration's decision to refuse the application was upheld by the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Federal Court. In 2002, Al-Kateb declared that he wished to return to Kuwait or Gaza. However, since no country would accept Al-Kateb, he was declared stateless and detained under the policy of mandatory detention. The two main issues considered by the High Court were whether the Migration Act 1958 (the legislation governing immigration to Australia) permitted a person in Al-Kateb's situation to be detained indefinitely, and if so, whether this was permissible under the Constitution of Australia. A majority of the court decided that the Act did allow indefinite detention, and that the Act was not unconstitutional. The controversy surrounding the outcome of the case resulted in a review of the circumstances of twenty-four stateless people in immigration detention. In 2007, nine of these people, including Al-Kateb, were granted bridging visas and allowed to enter the community. (more...)


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