History of Law

What shaped the Canadian legal system (Grace Zhi)

The Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi ruled the Babylon Empire from 1792 - 1750 BCE and during this time, he created a system of laws called the Code of Hammurabi to control Babylon. He sent people to research and collect all the laws that have previously existed and then he altered them, removed some, and added new laws of his own. Hammurabi wanted to "make justice visible in the land, to destroy the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak." The laws he created were very strict and had harsh punishments. His laws fit the term "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" because if someone hurts another, usually the same is done to him. The punishments for a person may vary depending on their social status because Hammurabi did not believe in equality. For example, the punishment for a wealthy noble man will be lighter than the punishment for a commoner or slave who has committed the same offense. Many laws in the Code pointed to jumping into the Euphrates River to determine if they are guilty or innocent. If the person survives, he is innocent and if the person drowns, then he is guilty.

A few examples of their laws are:

  • "If a son strikes his father, his hands shall be hewn off."
  • "If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out."
  • "If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death."

Life in the time of Hammurabi in Babylon would be pretty hard, since it was very likely to be punished for small actions. Also, accusing others of crimes was hard because the law requires the person accusing of the other to bring them to the court themselves. This means there was no police force to control situations or to make arrests. Also, doctors in this time period received high wages but however, they were received brutal punishments if errors were made. For example, if an operation is not successful, then the hands of the doctor would be cut off.

Roman Law

The Roman Law was created in 550 CE in Ancient Rome. The Romans believed that the Emperor was a God and he was to be worshiped alongside the Gods who were named after the planets. They were very religious and took worshiping the Gods and Goddesses seriously. Each family owned a shrine and an altar as a place for worship and prayer. They also sacrificed animals for the Gods. This action shows that the Romans were willing to go to extreme measures to please them. The Romans wanted to promote equality with the law but however, only men were able to vote for their leader. At this time in history, promoting equality was not common. They wrote a number of laws called the Twelve Tables and they used this system to govern and control Rome. They did not replace old laws but instead they have found other different ways to have fairness in their society. However, many of their punishments were harsh and sometimes unreasonable.

A few examples of their laws are:

  • "A dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed."
  • "If the theft has been done by night, if the owner kills the thief, the thief shall be held to be lawfully killed."
  • "If one is slain while committing theft by night, he is rightly slain."

Because of the strict punishments, life was hard because of the rules and punishments and how easily a murder can be justified as being legal.

The Napoleonic Code

The Napoleonic Code are a set of laws with regard to property, colonial affairs, family and individual rights and it was approved in March of 1804 in France. The Code established laws like commercial and criminal law and sorted civil law into categories like property and family. The laws that were established controlled France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and places in Germany and Italy. Napoleon believed that laws should be based on common sense and equality instead of custom, social status, and the power of Kings. Unlike the Roman law, men were treated equally regardless of their class, nobility, and social status under the Napoleonic Code. However, the Code made the rights of men to be more dominant over the rights of women and at that time, women were believed to belong to their fathers or husbands. The Napoleonic Code was divided into sections called "Books".

Book I:

  • Outlines civil rights
  • marriage laws
  • relationship laws

Book II:

  • property laws
  • ownership laws

Book III:

  • receiving and modifying one's rights (inheriting and through marriage)

Examples of Laws:

  • "A Married couple owe to each other loyalty, help or aid, and assistance."
  • "The husband has the management of all the personal property of the wife."
  • "The husband manages the property of the community. He may sell it, oppose, and pledge it without the agreement of his wife."

The British North America Act

The British North America Act (or the BNA Act) was signed in 1867 and it united Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with the rest of Canada. At the time, there were only two other provinces: Ontario and Quebec. The BNA was passed to set rules for Canada and separate the power between the federal government and the provinces. It stated that criminal law should be the federal government's responsibility and civil law should be the provincial government's. It also gave the federal government the power to stop any provincial act within two years, and also general power, while the provincial government had limited powers. It stated the responsibilities for the different levels of government.

Federal responsibility:

  • postal service
  • military
  • shipping
  • currency
  • criminal law
  • marriage and divorce
  • banking

Provincial responsibility:

  • property and civil rights
  • administration of justice in the province
  • local works

The British North America Act was completely written by Canadians at the Quebec Conference of 1864 instead of the British. It was passed without going through the process of amendment. The picture on the top right corner shows the Fathers of Confederation discussing the BNA Act.

Quotations from the BNA Act:

  • "Until the Queen otherwise directs the Seat of Government of Canada shall be Ottawa."
  • "There shall be One Parliament for Canada, consisting of the Queen, an Upper House styled the Senate, and the House of Commons."
  • "...The Part which formerly constituted the Province of Upper Canada shall constitute the Province of Ontario; and the Part which formerly constituted the Province of Lower Canada shall constitute the Province of Quebec."
  • "The Provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick shall have the same Limits as at the passing of this Act."

Comparing Laws from Different Time Periods

If you compare the laws from the different time periods, you will notice that in the past, punishments have been harsh and merciless, but as time goes on, people realize that some laws are not fair and being to manipulate them to treat everyone equally.

In the Code of Hammurabi and the Roman law, people were very concerned on the social status of a person. They were treated like less of a person just because of their class. In the Napoleonic Code, we begin to see a change in law as they have started to promote equality between people. However at that time, only men were considered equal; women were still inferior to men. By the time the BNA Act was established, the inequality in gender has gone down a little, but it still existed.

Laws created in the past has been heavily based on religion and morals. It caused some laws to be unreasonable and strange. Later on in time, laws started being based on common sense and reality. This makes the laws and punishments sounds more reasonable and justified.

Works Citied

Trueman, Chris. "Ancient Rome and Religion." Ancient Rome and Religion. N.p., 2014. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/ancient_rome_and_religion.htm>.

"The Twelve Tables." Ancient Rome. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <http://rome.mrdonn.org/12tables.html>.

ANCIENT ROMAN LAW (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 21 Sept. 2014. <http://www.pravos.unios.hr/engleski/pdf/roman_read.pdf>.

"Hammurabi's Code." Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, 2014. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.


The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "British North America Act."Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/80310/British-North-America-Act>.

"Guide to the BNA Act." Canadian Human Rights Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.


"British North America Act 1867 Document." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.


"Napoleonic Code Approved in France." History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.


"Napoleonic Code." About. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/thenapoleonsandempire/a/Napoleonic-Code-Code-Napoleon.htm>.

"The Napoleonic Code." Modern European History. N.p., 2014. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <https://moderneurope.wikispaces.com/The+Napoleonic+Code>.

More Information

Here is a link to the British North America Act Document: