Portal:Law - what does it mean

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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 set of rules that are created and are enforceable by 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 as 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 jurisdictions, 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 may make binding case law through precedent, although on occasion this may be overturned by a higher court or the legislature. Historically, religious law has influenced secular matters and is, as of the 21st century, still in use 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. The scope of law 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. (Full article...)

Selected article

A precedent is a principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive without going to courts for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. Common-law legal systems place great value on deciding cases according to consistent principled rules, so that similar facts will yield similar and predictable outcomes, and observance of precedent is the mechanism by which that goal is attained. The principle by which judges are bound to precedents is known as stare decisis (a Latin phrase with the literal meaning of "to stand in the-things-that-have-been-decided"). Common-law precedent is a third kind of law, on equal footing with statutory law (that is, statutes and codes enacted by legislative bodies) and subordinate legislation (that is, regulations promulgated by executive branch agencies, in the form of delegated legislation) in UK parlance – or regulatory law (in US parlance).

Case law, in common-law jurisdictions, is the set of decisions of adjudicatory tribunals or other rulings that can be cited as precedent. In most countries, including most European countries, the term is applied to any set of rulings on law, which is guided by previous rulings, for example, previous decisions of a government agency. Essential to the development of case law is the publication and indexing of decisions for use by lawyers, courts, and the general public, in the form of law reports. While all decisions are precedent (though at varying levels of authority as discussed throughout this article), some become "leading cases" or "landmark decisions" that are cited especially often.

Generally speaking, a legal precedent is said to be:

  • applied (if precedent is binding) / adopted (if precedent is persuasive), if the principles underpinning the previous decision are accordingly used to evaluate the issues of the subsequent case;
  • distinguished, if the principles underpinning the previous decision are found specific to, or premised upon, certain factual scenarios, and not applied to the subsequent case because of the absence or material difference in the latter's facts;
  • modified, if the same court on determination of the same case on order from a higher court modified one or more parts of the previous decision; or
  • overruled, if the same or higher courts on appeal or determination of subsequent cases found the principles underpinning the previous decision erroneous in law or overtaken by new legislation or developments.

In contrast, civil law systems adhere to a legal positivism, where past decisions do not usually have the precedential, binding effect that they have in common law decision-making; the judicial review practiced by constitutional courts can be regarded as a notable exception. (Full article...)

Selected biography

The face of a middle-aged Sherman Minton with dark hair and a prominent nose looking directly forward with a slight smile

Sherman "Shay" Minton (October 20, 1890 – April 9, 1965) was a United States senator from Indiana and later an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was a member of the Democratic Party.

After attending college and law school, Minton served as a captain in World War I, following which he launched a legal and political career. In 1930, after multiple failed election attempts, and serving as a regional leader in the American Legion, he became a utility commissioner under the administration of Paul V. McNutt, Governor of Indiana. Four years later, Minton was elected to the United States Senate. During the campaign, he defended New Deal legislation in a series of addresses in which he suggested it was not necessary to uphold the United States Constitution during the Great Depression. Minton's campaign was denounced by his political opponents, and he received more widespread criticism for an address that became known as the "You Cannot Eat the Constitution" speech. As part of the New Deal Coalition, Minton championed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's unsuccessful court packing plans in the Senate and became one of his top Senate allies.

After Minton failed in his 1940 Senate reelection bid, Roosevelt appointed him as a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. After Roosevelt's death, President Harry S. Truman, who had developed a close friendship with Minton during their time together in the Senate, nominated him to the Supreme Court. He was confirmed by the Senate on October 4, 1949, by a vote of 48 to 16, 15 Republicans and one Democrat (Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia) voting against him. He served on the Supreme Court for seven years. An advocate of judicial restraint, Minton was a regular supporter of the majority opinions during his early years on the Court; he became a regular dissenter after President Dwight Eisenhower's appointees altered the court's composition. In 1956, poor health forced Minton to retire, after which he traveled and lectured until his death in 1965. (Full article...)

Selected 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. (Full article...)


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 and anti-Communist 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. (Full article...)

Did you know...

Photographs of a woman standing at a podium and gesturing.

  • ... that Dutch physician Aletta Jacobs legal challenge to be added to the Amsterdam electoral rolls backfired, leading to a constitutional amendment granting voting rights only to men?
  • ... that when Henry McCardie was a barrister, he often worked so late that his chambers were nicknamed "the lighthouse", as there was light coming from the windows?
  • ... that the diaries of James Humphreys, the "Emperor of Porn", were used to convict 13 policemen of accepting his bribes?

Selected images

Selected case

Case law, also used interchangeably with common law, is law that is based on precedents, that is the judicial decisions from previous cases, rather than law based on constitutions, statutes, or regulations. Case law uses the detailed facts of a case that have been resolved by courts or similar tribunals. 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, drawing on established judicial authority to formulate their positions. (Full article...)


Dietrich v The Queen, [1992] HCA 57, is a High Court of Australia case in which the Court established a de facto constitutional requirement that legal aid be provided to defendants in serious criminal trials. The Court determined an adjournment ought to be granted in such trials where the accused is without legal representation through no fault of their own and proceeding would result in the trial being unfair. Dietrich v the Queen is considered important and said to have "had a fundamental impact on the Australian justice system".

Until Dietrich v The Queen, it was customary for those unable to afford legal representation to be forced to trial, even when facing serious criminal charges, with previous rulings by the Court finding it preferable but not requisite for a fair trial. In a 5-2 opinion, the Court confirmed those facing trial are not entitled to legal aid at public expense, but that courts possess power to stay criminal proceedings which will result in an unfair trial.

The case originated in the County Court of Victoria, where Olaf Dietrich had been convicted by jury on one count of importing a trafficable quantity of heroin. Prior to trial, Dietrich had applied for legal assistance through several avenues, all of which were rejected. After leave to appeal was rejected by the Victorian Court of Criminal Appeal, the matter was escalated to the High Court of Australia. Counsel for Dietrich applied for appeal on one ground being Dietrich's lack of legal representation meant the trial in the County Court of Victoria was miscarried. (Full article...)

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