law, development of

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law, development of. Every society develops rules of law which govern it. Legal rules are different from purely moral rules or rules of etiquette in that they carry within them the authority of the community. The distinction may be made between criminal laws, which deal with the prevention of conduct contrary to and unacceptable to the community—transgression of which will lead to retribution—and civil law, which is concerned with the solving of disputes between individuals. In some societies there may be little distinction between criminal and civil law (e.g. in Anglo-Saxon England where murder, rape, or robbery would result in a payment being made to the injured person or their kin).

The way in which law develops and the meaning of the very term ‘law’ have been the subject of philosophical discussion and historical analysis for many centuries and the science or subject of jurisprudence is devoted to such discussions. Customary law develops in most societies and may be written down in codes or superseded by them.

The great legal codes of the world, dating back to the laws of Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylonia in 2000 bc, have been an important source of law. Other famous lawmakers have been Draco, Lycurgas, Manu, Moses, Muhammad, and Solon of Athens. One of the most famous and far-reaching systems of law was Roman law, one of the most admirable and important features of the Roman state, and also one precious legacy which Rome the colonizer gave to the peoples whom it conquered. Roman law, contained especially in the Institutes of Gaius and Justinian, modified and interpreted by the medieval scholars of Europe, has provided the basis for the laws of most European countries.

In England, however, despite the Roman conquest, little Roman influence remained after they left Britain, and during the period known as ‘the Dark Ages’ such law as existed in England was apparently customary. The invasions of Germanic peoples brought strong traditions of customary law to these shores. Under the Anglo-Saxon and Danish kings of England these customs were recognized, declared, and enforced in local assemblies such as the shire court. The unification of the several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into a unitary state brought about a synthesis of many of these legal customs, often confirmed by ‘Dooms’ or codes of law declared by the kings, usually with the advice of the leaders of the Christian church in England. After the Danish conquest of parts of England, especially of the east and north-east, separate laws of Danish origin were recognized in these regions—known by the collective name of ‘the Danelaw’.

In 1066 William the Conqueror promised the English people that he would preserve ‘the laws of Edward the Confessor’ and apart from the introduction of a new and strict system of feudal landholding he did not change the laws of the English. However the combination of this new brand of ‘military feudalism’, the centralization of power and government, and the development of the king's curia regis led to the development of royal justice and hence of the common law, which gradually, through the decisions of the courts, built up a body of laws common to all the kingdom, including Wales, after its conquest by Edward I.

English law continued to develop, primarily through the decisions of the courts, modified or altered by Parliament, which is ultimately sovereign and can change or repeal any rule of common law. Increasingly, in the 19th, 20th, and 21st cents., the law is made by Parliament in the form of Acts of Parliament or subordinate legislation.

Maureen Mulholland