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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

The illustration depicts a naked man on a ladder being cut open by a person on an adjacent ladder as the crowd watches excitedly. A great fire burns beneath them in the centre of the picture.

To be hanged, drawn and quartered was, from 1352, a statutory penalty in England for men convicted of high treason, although the ritual was first recorded during the reign of King Henry III (1216–1272). The convicted traitor was fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, where he was then hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). His remains would then often be displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge, to serve as a warning of the fate of traitors. For reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.

The severity of the sentence was measured against the seriousness of the crime. As an attack on the monarch's authority, high treason was considered a deplorable act demanding the most extreme form of punishment. Although some convicts had their sentences modified and suffered a less ignominious end, over a period of several hundred years many men found guilty of high treason were subjected to the law's ultimate sanction. They included many English Catholic priests executed during the Elizabethan era, and several of the regicides involved in the 1649 execution of Charles I.

Although the Act of Parliament defining high treason remains on the United Kingdom's statute books, during a long period of 19th-century legal reform the sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering was changed to drawing, hanging until dead, and posthumous beheading and quartering, before being abolished in England in 1870. The death penalty for treason was abolished in 1998. (more...)

Selected biography

Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Earl Warren (March 19, 1891 – July 9, 1974) was an American politician and jurist who served as Governor of California from 1943 to 1953 and Chief Justice of the United States from 1953 to 1969. The "Warren Court" presided over a major shift in American constitutional jurisprudence, which has been recognized by many as a "Constitutional Revolution" of the liberal, with Warren writing the majority opinions in landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Reynolds v. Sims (1964), Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and Loving v. Virginia (1967). Warren also led the Warren Commission, a presidential commission that investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He is the last Chief Justice to have served in an elected office before entering the Supreme Court, and is generally considered to be one of the most influential Supreme Court justices and political leaders in the history of the United States.

Warren served as Thomas E. Dewey's running mate in the 1948 presidential election, but Dewey lost the election to incumbent President Harry S. Truman. Warren sought the Republican nomination in the 1952 presidential election, but the party nominated General Dwight D. Eisenhower. After Eisenhower won election as president, he appointed Warren as Chief Justice. A series of rulings made by the Warren Court in the 1950s led directly to the decline of McCarthyism. Warren helped arrange a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. After Brown, the Warren Court would continue to issue rulings that helped bring an end to the segregationist Jim Crow laws that were prevalent throughout the South. In Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964), the Court upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that prohibits racial segregation in public institutions and public accommodations.

In the 1960s, the Warren Court handed down several landmark rulings that significantly transformed criminal procedure, redistricting, and other areas of the law. Many of the Court's decisions incorporated the Bill of Rights, making the protections of the Bill of Rights apply to state and local governments. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) established a criminal defendant's right to an attorney in felony cases, and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) required police officers to give what became known as the Miranda warning to suspects taken into police custody that advises them of their constitutional protections. Reynolds v. Sims (1964) established that all state legislative districts must be of roughly equal population size, while the Court's holding in Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) required equal populations for congressional districts, thus achieving "one man, one vote" in the United States. Furthermore, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) struck down a state law that restricted access to contraceptives and established a constitutional right to privacy, and Loving v. Virginia (1967) struck down state anti-miscegenation laws, which had banned or otherwise regulated interracial marriage. Warren announced his retirement in 1968 and was succeeded by Appellate Judge Warren E. Burger (Burger Court) in 1969. The Warren Court's rulings have received criticism, particularly from conservatives, but have received widespread support and acclamation from liberals. As yet, few of the Court's decisions have been overturned. (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 Defective Premises Act 1972 (c. 35) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that covers landlords' and builders' liability for poorly constructed and poorly maintained buildings, along with any injuries that may result. During the 19th century, the common law principle that a landlord could not be liable for letting a poorly maintained house was established, while a long-running principle was that, in practice, builders could not be sued for constructing defective buildings. The courts began to turn against the first principle during the 20th century, imposing several restrictions on the landlord's immunity, but the landlord was still largely free from being sued.

The Defective Premises Bill was introduced to the House of Commons as a private member's bill by Ivor Richard on 1 December 1971, and given the Royal Assent on 29 June 1972, coming into force as the Defective Premises Act 1972 on 1 January 1974. The Act establishes a duty of care builders and their sub-contractors owe to the occupiers of property they construct or modify, and also establishes a duty of care landlords hold towards their tenants and any third parties who might be injured by their failure to maintain or repair property. The Act received a mixed reaction from critics; while some complimented it on its simple nature compared to the previously complex common rule laws, others felt that it was too limited for what was desired to be achieved, and that the wording used was at times both too vague and too specific. (more...)


Did you know...

  • ... that although Elizabeth Richards Tilton (pictured) was a central figure in a six-month-long trial, she was never allowed to speak in court?

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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:


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Lawrence et al. v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that U.S. laws prohibiting private homosexual activity between consenting adults are unconstitutional. The Court reaffirmed the concept of a "right to privacy" that earlier cases, such as Roe v. Wade, had found the U.S. Constitution provides, even though it is not explicitly enumerated. The Court based its ruling on the notions of personal autonomy to define one's own relationships and of American traditions of non-interference with private sexual decisions between consenting adults.

In 1998, John Geddes Lawrence Jr. was arrested along with an acquaintance at his apartment in Harris County, Texas, when sheriff's deputies found them engaging in sexual intercourse. Lawrence and his partner, Tyron Garner, were charged with a misdemeanor under Texas' anti-sodomy law; both pleaded no contest and received a fine. Assisted by the American civil rights organization Lambda Legal, Lawrence and Garner appealed their sentences to the Texas Courts of Appeals, which ruled in 2000 that the sodomy law was unconstitutional. Texas appealed to have the court rehear the case en banc, and in 2001 it overturned its prior judgment and upheld the law. Lawrence appealed this decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which denied his request for appeal. Lawrence then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his case.

The Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law in Texas in a 6–3 decision and, by extension, invalidated sodomy laws in 13 other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory. The Court, with a five-justice majority, overturned its previous ruling on the same issue in the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick, where it upheld a challenged Georgia statute and did not find a constitutional protection of sexual privacy. It explicitly overruled Bowers, holding that it had viewed the liberty interest too narrowly. The Court held that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by substantive due process under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Lawrence invalidated similar laws throughout the United States that criminalized sodomy between consenting adults acting in private, whatever the sex of the participants. (more...)


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