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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 commonly understood as a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate conduct, although its precise definition is 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 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.

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 case law 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 Court of Common Pleas, or Common Bench, was a common law court in the English legal system that covered "common pleas"; actions between subject and subject, which did not concern the king. Created in the late 12th to early 13th century after splitting from the Exchequer of Pleas, the Common Pleas served as one of the central English courts for around 600 years. Authorised by Magna Carta to sit in a fixed location, the Common Pleas sat in Westminster Hall for its entire existence, joined by the Exchequer of Pleas and Court of King's Bench.

The court's jurisdiction was gradually undercut by the King's Bench and Exchequer of Pleas with legal fictions, the Bill of Middlesex and Writ of Quominus respectively. The Common Pleas maintained its exclusive jurisdiction over matters of real property until its dissolution, and due to its wide remit was considered by Sir Edward Coke to be the "lock and key of the common law". It was staffed by one Chief Justice and a varying number of puisne justices, who were required to be Serjeants-at-Law, and until the mid 19th century only Serjeants were allowed to plead there. (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:


A filer warning of, among other things, "mental hygiene"

The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 (Public Law 84-830) was an Act of Congress passed to improve mental health care in the United States territory of Alaska. It became the focus of a major political controversy after opponents nicknamed it the "Siberia Bill" and denounced it as being part of a communist plot to hospitalize and brainwash Americans. Campaigners asserted that it was part of an international Jewish, Roman Catholic or psychiatric conspiracy intended to establish United Nations-run concentration camps in the United States.

The legislation in its original form was sponsored by the Democratic Party, but after it ran into opposition, it was rescued by the conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. Under Goldwater's sponsorship, a version of the legislation without the commitment provisions that were the target of intense opposition from a variety of far-right, anti-Communist and fringe religious groups was passed by the United States Senate. The controversy still plays a prominent role in the Church of Scientology's account of its campaign against psychiatry.

The Act succeeded in its initial aim of establishing a mental health care system for Alaska, funded by income from lands allocated to a mental health trust. However, during the 1970s and early 1980s, Alaskan politicians systematically stripped the trust of its lands, transferring the most valuable land to private individuals and state agencies. The asset stripping was eventually ruled to be illegal following several years of litigation, and a reconstituted mental health trust was established in the mid-1980s. (more...)


Did you know...

Black and white photograph of a seated woman in traditional Indian dress.

  • ... that the non-payment of debts is the archetype for the seventeen other Hindu titles of law, including that of sexual crimes against women?

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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:


Photograph of Chief Crow Dog

Ex parte Crow Dog, 109 U.S. 556 (1883), is a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that followed the death of one member of a Native American tribe at the hands of another on reservation land. Crow Dog was a member of the Brulé band of the Lakota Sioux. On August 5, 1881 he shot and killed Spotted Tail, a Lakota chief; there are different accounts of the background to the killing. The tribal council dealt with the incident according to Sioux tradition, and Crow Dog paid restitution to the dead man's family. However, the U.S. authorities then prosecuted Crow Dog for murder in a federal court. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The defendant then petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the federal court had no jurisdiction to try cases where the offense had already been tried by the tribal council. The court found unanimously for the plaintiff and Crow Dog was therefore released.

This case was the first time in history that an Indian was held on trial for the murder of another Indian. The case led to the Major Crimes Act in 1885, which placed some major crimes (initially seven, now 15) under federal jurisdiction if committed by an Indian against another Indian on a reservation or tribal land. This case was the beginning of the plenary power legal doctrine that has been used in Indian case law to limit tribal sovereignty. (more...)


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