The History of Law

A look at the evolution of law and its many functions

The Law is Simple

But what is law? Law is defined as a system of rules that a governing body recognizes to regulate the actions of the persons it rules over, and allows enforcement of the penalties it may impose.

Law has evolved over the course of history, with the goal always being to provide justice and fairness. Rights and freedoms outlined by the Code of Hammurabi would be expanded upon by legal systems created later on. The Napoleonic Code influenced French law because it was based on ideals that were revolutionary at that point in time. Different places need different things, England needed to put an end to feudalism. Canada needed to have control over its own legal system.All of these systems were created to protect and satisfy the needs of people.

An Eye for an Eye

The phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" goes back to the culture that King Hammurabi created when the Law Code of Hammurabi was codified and enforced. Hammurabi wanted laws for his land because he felt that in order to adequately control his empire, a unified code of law needed to be enforced over the areas in his control.

Everyone is equal, but not really

In the introduction to his code of law, King Hammurabi claims to want " to make justice visible in the land, to destroy the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak." A statement that seems ironic after you realize that under his code of law, punishments differed depending on social status. It seems that while Hammurabi believed in justice, he also believed that depending who was wronged, some people deserved more justice than others.


When the Law Code of Hammurabi was put together as a code (codified), it was etched onto two large stone blocks. It held nearly 300 laws, with topics ranging from

  • Adulterous Spouses
  • Assault Resulting in Injury
  • Trials by Ordeal
  • Medical Malpractice
  • Incest
  • Adoption
The laws were so influential and revolutionary, that even after the fall of Hammurabi's empire it remained as a legal guide for the surrounding region for centuries after. The laws of Hammurabi put importance in honesty, and featured a form of trial system. Although many of the laws it featured would be questioned in the societies of today, some of the standards it set are still in place today. From bringing a case before a judge and having to provide evidence and witnesses to the idea that anyone brought forth for a crime was innocent until proven guilty, Hammurabi set precedents with his choices.

Code Napoléon

The Napoleonic Code was a French civil code that Napoleon Bonaparte enacted in 1804. It was heavily influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution (which was influenced heavily by the American Revolution) and revised most of the French legal system. One of the most important factors in the creation of the Code Napoléon was the unification through codification. By codifying the laws, they would apply to everyone in any and every part of France. However, Napoleon Bonaparte was not the sole contributor of this civil code. Legal expert Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès and lawyer Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis played important parts in the drafting, design and writing of the actual code along with Napoleon the commission he had appointed to assist him.

The Legacy

Even today, we can see how the legacy of the Napoleonic Code affects legal systems throughout the world. For instance, the legal system in Louisiana bares a strong resemblance to the Napoleonic Code. Unlike the common law based rulings in the other states of America, the legal system in Louisiana use the direct interpretation method like the French. In this system, the judge essentially uses their own interpretation of the Napoleonic code to make a decision, as opposed to making a choice based on previous rulings. The Louisiana legal system also features laws that are based on principles from the Napoleonic code, such as "forced heirship" which legally entitles a child to a portion of his parents' estate. Many places that were French colonies feature legal systems heavily influenced by the Napoleonic Code.

Some of these countries include:

  • Quebec
  • Belgium
  • Bolivia
  • Dominican Republic
  • Haiti
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands

Canadian Autonomy

British North America: When Canada Got (some) Control

The British North America Act was a law passed by British Parliament to give Canada domestic legal control over itself. This allowed Canada to have its own government with its own laws, as opposed to operating as a colony. However, it was not until the Statute of Westminister was passed that Canada no longer had to operate as a division of Britain and gained "full control". The "domestic legal control" that the BNA Act gave Canada came in the form of the Federal government and the Provincial government. The BNA Act would also become apart of the Canadian Constitution not long after its passing.
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Although Canada had domestic control, it wasn't until the Statute of Westminister was passed that Canada also had control over international decisions. When the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminister in 1931, the changes were not immediately noticeable. A great example of this would be the creation of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1949.

Changing the System

When the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the Canadian judicial system, it was replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Before the Statute of Westminister had passed, legal issues disputed at the highest level were dealt with by the Privy Council. For instance, when the famous "Persons Case" was taken to court by members of the Famous Five, it was ruled on by the Privy council. But when Sue Rodriguez disputed the legal ramifications of assisted suicide, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against her.