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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.

Selected article

A black and white photograph of King George and Queen Elizabeth seated on thrones

Royal assent is the method by which a monarch formally approves an act of the legislature (either directly, or through an official acting on the monarch's behalf). In some jurisdictions, royal assent is equivalent to promulgation, while in others that is a separate step. Under a modern constitutional monarchy royal assent is considered to be little more than a formality; even in those nations which still, in theory, permit the monarch to withhold assent to laws (such as the United Kingdom, Norway, and Liechtenstein), the monarch almost never does so, save in a dire political emergency or upon the advice of their government. While the power to veto a law by withholding royal assent was once exercised often by European monarchs, such an occurrence has been very rare since the eighteenth century.

Royal assent is sometimes associated with elaborate ceremonies. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the sovereign may appear personally in the House of Lords or may appoint Lords Commissioners, who announce that royal assent has been granted at a ceremony held at the Palace of Westminster for this purpose. However, royal assent is usually granted less ceremonially by letters patent. In other nations, such as Australia, the governor-general (as the monarch's representative) merely signs a bill. In Canada, the governor general may give assent either in person at a ceremony held in the Senate or by a written declaration notifying parliament of their agreement to the bill. (more...)

Selected biography

Painting of Cesare Beccaria

Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria (or the Marchese de Beccaria-Bonesana) (March 11, 1738 - November 28, 1794) was an Italian philosopher and politician. He was born in Milan, and educated in the Jesuit college at Parma. In 1764 Beccaria published a brief but justly celebrated treatise Dei Delitti e delle Pene ("On Crimes and Punishments"), which marked the high point of the Milan Enlightenment. In it, Beccaria put forth the first arguments ever made against the death penalty. His treatise was also the first full work of penology, advocating reform of the criminal law system. The book was the first full-scale work to tackle criminal reform and to suggest that criminal justice should conform to rational principles. It is a less theoretical work than the writings of Grotius, Pufendorf and other comparable thinkers, and as much a work of advocacy as of theory. In this, Beccaria reflected the convictions of the Il Caffe group, who sought to cause reform through Enlightenment discourse. The book's serious message is put across in a clear and animated style, based in particular upon a deep sense of humanity and of urgency at unjust suffering. This humane sentiment is what makes Beccaria appeal for rationality in the laws. (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 cover of the Basic Law, published by the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China is the constitution of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and a national law of the People's Republic of China. Comprising nine chapters, 160 articles and three annexes, the Basic Law was adopted on 4 April 1990 by the Seventh National People's Congress and signed by President Yang Shangkun. The Basic Law came into effect on 1 July 1997 in Hong Kong when the sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China, replacing Hong Kong's colonial constitution of the Letters Patent and the Royal Instructions. The Hong Kong Basic Law sets out the sources of law, the relationship between the Hong Kong SAR and the Central Government, the fundamental rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, and the structure and functions of the branches of local government, and it provides for the amendment and interpretation of the Basic Law. The courts of Hong Kong are given the power to review acts of the executive or legislature and declare them invalid if they are inconsistent with the Basic Law. The source of authority for the Basic Law is disputed. (more...)


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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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Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966), was a landmark 5-4 decision of the United States Supreme Court which was argued February 28–March 1, 1966 and decided June 13, 1966. The Court held that criminal suspects must be informed of their right to consult with an attorney and of their right against self-incrimination prior to questioning by police. During the 1960s, a movement to provide indigent defendants with legal aid emerged from the collective efforts of various public interest groups. In the civil realm, it led to the creation of the ancestor of the Legal Services Corporation under the Great Society program of President Lyndon B. Johnson (although Supreme Court, in Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 (1964), a case which closely foreshadowed Miranda, held that defendants in custody had a right to consult with their attorneys, even before they were indicted). This reform impulse extended to a concern over police interrogation practices, which were considered by many to be barbaric and unjust. Coercive interrogation tactics were known in period slang as the "third degree". (more...)


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