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IB DP History Study Notes

8.2.2 Administration of Law and Justice

Delving deeper into the realm of law and justice reveals how societies have consistently adapted their judicial mechanisms, balancing tradition with evolution, and religious principles with secular ideals.

Development and Function of Judicial Systems

Judicial systems interpret and enforce laws, maintaining order and delivering justice.

Ancient Civilisations

These were the precursors to our modern justice systems, displaying varied levels of sophistication:

  • Ancient Egypt:
    • The Pharaoh was the highest judicial authority.
    • A hierarchical system was in place, with local officials overseeing matters in their regions.
    • Ma'at, representing truth and balance, was a guiding principle in Egyptian justice.
  • Ancient Rome:
    • Began with a simple system of praetors and jurors.
    • Over time, it evolved with the establishment of appellate courts and codified laws.
    • Twelve Tables: The earliest attempt at a law code, covering various civil and procedural matters.

Middle Ages

  • Feudal Courts:
    • Local lords had significant power and held courts for their vassals.
    • Justice often depended on the lord's whims.
  • Church Courts:
    • Oversaw moral and religious issues.
    • Some had authority over marriage, tithes, and heresy.
  • Royal Courts:
    • Kings established these to reduce feudal power.
    • Provided a more structured approach to justice.

Modern Era

  • Common Law vs. Civil Law:
    • Common Law: Emerged in England, based on judge-made decisions. Precedents play a crucial role.
    • Civil Law: Found in many European nations, based on codified laws.
  • International Courts:
    • Address issues like war crimes and genocides.
    • Examples include the ICC and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Role of Religious vs Secular Laws in Governance

The interplay between religious doctrines and secular ideologies has significantly influenced governance.

Religious Laws

  • Sharia:
    • Governs many Islamic nations, influencing civil, criminal, and personal matters.
    • It's versatile, with interpretations varying between countries.
  • Canon Law:
    • Used by the Catholic Church.
    • Regulates matters like marriage, clerical conduct, and liturgical practices.
  • Hindu Law:
    • Historically, governed personal issues in India.
    • Based on ancient scriptures but has evolved with modern legal reforms.
  • Jewish Halakha:
    • Comprehensive, covering aspects of daily life.
    • Interpretations can vary between orthodox and liberal Jewish communities.

Secular Laws

  • Origins:
    • Emerged as societies sought laws beyond religious confines.
    • Addressed broader societal needs and issues.
  • Modern Democracies:
    • Rooted in principles like human rights, equality, and freedom of speech.
    • Constitutions often ensure the separation of religious institutions from governance.
  • Advantages:
    • Greater adaptability to societal changes.
    • More inclusive, often covering diverse populations with varied beliefs.

Historical legal milestones continue to influence contemporary justice systems.

Legal Reforms

  • Magna Carta (1215):
    • Restrained the monarchy's power.
    • Recognised and protected baronial rights.
  • Napoleonic Code (1804):
    • Codified French laws, bringing clarity.
    • Influenced numerous civil law jurisdictions.
  • The Great Reform Act (1832):
    • Significant for British democracy.
    • Expanded the electorate and modernised the electoral system.
  • Indian Legal Reforms (20th Century):
    • Targeted archaic and regressive customs.
    • The Hindu Code Bills, for instance, promoted gender equality.

Landmark Judicial Decisions

  • Marbury v. Madison (1803):
    • Though American, it had global implications.
    • Established the principle of judicial review.
  • Donoghue v Stevenson (1932):
    • A foundational case for tort law.
    • Established the concept of duty of care in negligence.
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954):
    • Challenged racial discrimination.
    • Changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • R v R (1991):
    • Updated the British understanding of consent.
    • Recognised marital rape, reshaping marital rights.

As societies progress, the administration of law and justice remains a cornerstone, reflecting our evolving understanding of equity, fairness, and human rights. The synthesis of religious and secular ideals, combined with landmark rulings, has paved the way for a justice system that strives for greater inclusivity and fairness.


Feudal courts, which were presided over by local lords, were prevalent in the early Middle Ages. However, as monarchies strengthened, the need for a more centralised and unified legal system became evident. Royal courts were established by kings to curtail the power of local lords and create a more structured, consistent justice system. These courts often provided a higher form of appeal and introduced laws that were applicable across the kingdom. As trade and commerce grew, a consistent legal framework was necessary to ensure stability. Over time, the influence and jurisdiction of feudal courts diminished as royal courts gained more authority, leading to the decline of the feudal system itself.

The fundamental difference between common law and civil law systems lies in their sources and methodologies. Common law, which originates from England, is primarily based on judicial decisions. Courts in common law systems heavily rely on precedents, or previous rulings, to decide similar subsequent cases. This emphasis on case law allows for flexibility and adaptability. On the other hand, civil law systems, like those in most European countries, are rooted in comprehensive legal codes. These codes provide a detailed set of laws, which judges apply to individual cases. The focus here is on the application of codified laws rather than interpreting past judgments.

International courts have had a significant impact on global governance by addressing issues that transcend national borders. Bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) provide mechanisms to address disputes between nations or prosecute individuals for crimes of international concern, such as war crimes or genocides. These courts promote the idea of a global legal order and uphold international laws and treaties. They provide a forum for peaceful resolution of disputes and ensure that individuals or states are held accountable for grave violations. Their existence underscores the global community's commitment to justice, human rights, and international cooperation.

Religious courts in medieval Europe, often overseen by the Church, focused primarily on issues related to morality, faith, and religious practices. These courts dealt with matters such as heresy, marriage, tithes, and even some types of contracts. Their authority was derived from religious scriptures and ecclesiastical traditions. On the other hand, secular courts, which could be royal or feudal, addressed a broader range of issues, including disputes over land, criminal offences, and civil conflicts. While religious courts prioritised spiritual well-being and the preservation of religious orthodoxy, secular courts were more concerned with maintaining societal order, resolving disputes, and enforcing the ruler's laws.

The Napoleonic Code, introduced in 1804, marked a significant departure from prior French legal systems. Before its establishment, French laws were a mix of customary laws, royal decrees, and Roman law, often leading to inconsistency and ambiguity. The Napoleonic Code aimed to consolidate these diverse legal traditions into one cohesive, codified system. It emphasised clarity, fairness, and accessibility, ensuring that laws were known and applied uniformly across France. This legal reform was not just revolutionary in simplifying and modernising French law but also because it removed many feudal privileges and ensured equality before the law, regardless of one's social standing.

Practice Questions

How have religious and secular laws historically influenced governance systems in different civilisations?

Religious and secular laws have had profound effects on governance throughout history. Religious laws, like Sharia in Islamic nations or Canon Law in the Catholic Church, provided a framework that blended divine principles with daily governance, ensuring societal adherence to religious norms. In contrast, secular laws emerged as societies evolved, prioritising humanistic principles over religious dictates. For instance, modern democracies often separate church from state, ensuring governance remains neutral and adaptable. By blending or distinguishing these laws, civilisations have shaped governance structures that reflect their cultural, moral, and philosophical values.

Evaluate the significance of landmark judicial decisions in shaping modern legal systems.

Landmark judicial decisions have been instrumental in shaping modern legal systems by setting precedents and steering legal thought. Cases like Donoghue v Stevenson established crucial principles in tort law, specifically the duty of care in negligence. The American case of Marbury v. Madison, while not British, had a global ripple effect, introducing the idea of judicial review. Similarly, R v R modernised the concept of consent in British law by acknowledging marital rape. These decisions, amongst others, have moulded the legal landscape, ensuring that laws evolve with societal norms and values, and remain relevant and just.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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