I have had an extremely hard time writing this.
There’s a reason why a lawyer’s vocation is called a practice. The subject is so vast that no one person can boast such a knowledge of it to be considered truly done with their training. The human mind just isn’t that capable, and boiling it down is it’s own chore.
Luckily for you, as a person creating a universe for fiction, you only have to communicate enough of a society’s laws to be convincing. Like with any facet of the world building process, it may not even come up, but even if the facts only ever exist in your head, knowing them can inform the rest of the world in a very realistic and consistent way.
So, what should a person ask themselves about the formal organization of the societies that exist in their worlds?
Consider our own world. Law is given a great deal of importance by governments as bureaucracy both lends and limits the government’s power. Law and government is compartmentalized, always. You can go back 4,000 years and still see compartmentalization. Someone makes the laws, someone enforces the laws, and someone is served by the laws.
Let’s start at the top. Who’s in charge? This can be a king, a queen, a triumvirate, a council, a senate, a chief, an imperator, an emperor, a pharaoh, a president—you get the idea. The law says that this person or group is to be obeyed. They either make the laws or delegate that responsibility because they’re in charge. Who put them in charge? We all know that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, but that’s how it was back in the day. Authority figures around the world have claimed to rule by divine mandate, either having been chosen to rule by a god or claiming to be a god themselves. Councils of Ealdormen are sometimes landowners and sometimes just respected because of their age and, well, their gender. Some societies are matriarchies to this day. In more modern times, these officials may be elected, but someone created that office under some authority, which brings us to–
In larger societies, or just societies with antiquated communication systems, control must be exerted in an even more compartmentalized fashion, with lesser lords or state officials in charge of bureaucratic zones, be they fief, city, state, country, territory, municipality, or otherwise. These people have duty to the officials above them and execute these duties with varying degrees of success. Without lesser lords, senators, mayors, dukes, governors, etc. the the head of the government body couldn’t function. The responsibility would be just too great.
The common man is at the mercy of the law but also benefits from the order it provides. In democratic countries, it is ultimately by the authority of the common man that the law is applied. Only with their consent do individuals receive punishment and the current social order continue. In other forms of government, this is still the case, whether they know it or not, because without them, society doesn’t function. Do the people in your story exercise their rights? Are they oppressed? Do they know they’re oppressed?
Who enforces the laws? Today we have specially appointed officers whose job it is to apprehend criminals and keep the peace. This wasn’t always so, and like with all manner of people, these officers have historically met with varying degrees of success. There have been times where the only law was the law of the sword, where the one still standing was in the right and the matter was considered closed. At other times, in other places, all criminals went before the local lord and the lord decided the fate of the accused on a whim. Witches in Salem were tested for guilt with decidedly unscientific methods born of superstition and misconception. Hammurabi’s famous code of laws sought to establish a more concrete and equitable framework where one crime would be met with very specific punishment. The Greeks took to just kicking people out. Today we have a heavily compartmentalized method of justice, where one civil servant catches the criminal, one tries to persuade his fellows to condemn him, and one decides how severe the punishment will be.
Authority without Law
The explorations of government listed above describe a formal sort of social order that is written, transparent, and even democratic, but what law boils down to is power and its application. Less formally, the society you create, like in real life, may actually be under the influence of those whose power has grown beyond the control of formal society. Whether with money, manpower, or influence, these brokers of power exert control over society in ways decidedly unwritten, opaque, and autocratic. Whether the civilization you create considers itself well developed or not, it would not do to forget that power comes in many forms and can be misused.
Who does the law serve?
Suddenly, this question is complicated, yes? Perhaps the law of your society was designed to serve the people, but less scrupulous characters within your society have made the law work for them instead. This question is a question of power.
Who is at the top?
Who is at the bottom?
Who makes the laws?
Who enforces the laws?
What are the punishments?
What is the current social order?
What is the implication of law in your world?
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