Portal:Law

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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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A crowd of people, some waving rainbow flags or holding placards

Same-sex marriage in Spain has been legal since July 3, 2005. In 2004, the nation's newly elected Socialist Party (PSOE) Government, led by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, began a campaign for its introduction, including the right of adoption by same-sex couples. After much debate, a law permitting same-sex marriage was passed by the Cortes Generales (Spain's bicameral Parliament, composed of the Senate and the Congress of Deputies) on 30 June 2005 and published on 2 July 2005. The law took effect the next day, making Spain the third country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry on a national level, after the Netherlands and Belgium, and 17 days ahead of the right being extended across all of Canada.

The ratification of this law was not devoid of conflict, despite support from 66% of the population. Roman Catholic authorities in particular were adamantly opposed, criticising what they regarded as the weakening of the meaning of marriage. Other associations expressed concern over the possibility of lesbians and gays adopting children. Demonstrations for and against the law drew thousands of people from all parts of Spain. After its approval, the conservative People's Party challenged the law in the Constitutional Court.

Approximately 4,500 same-sex couples married in Spain during the first year of the law. Shortly after the law was passed, questions arose about the legal status of marriage to non-Spaniards whose country did not permit same-sex marriage. A ruling from the Justice Ministry stated that the country's same-sex marriage law allows a Spanish citizen to marry a non-Spaniard regardless of whether that person's homeland recognizes the partnership. At least one partner must be a Spanish citizen in order to marry, although two non-Spaniards may marry if they both have legal residence in Spain. (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 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...)


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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:


An illustration of two people fighting in a pen and surrounded by a large crowd

Ashford v Thornton (1818) 106 ER 149 is an English law case in the Court of King's Bench that upheld the right of the defendant, on a private appeal from an acquittal for murder, to trial by battle. In 1817, Abraham Thornton was charged with the murder of Mary Ashford. Thornton had met Ashford at a dance, and had walked with her from the event. The next morning, Ashford was found drowned in a pit, with little outward signs of violence. Although public opinion was heavily against Thornton, the jury quickly acquitted him, and also found him not guilty of rape.

Mary's brother, William Ashford, launched an appeal, and Thornton was rearrested. Thornton claimed the right to trial by battle, a medieval usage that had never been repealed by Parliament. Ashford argued that the evidence against Thornton was overwhelming, and that he was thus ineligible to wage battle.

The court decided that the evidence against Thornton was not overwhelming, and that trial by battle was a permissible option under law; thus Thornton was granted trial by battle. Ashford declined the offer of battle and Thornton was freed from custody. Appeals such as Ashford's were abolished by statute the following year, and with them the right to trial by battle. (more...)


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