7 Landmark Moments in the History of Law

How far does the law reflect changes in the wider world? And how far is law itself the agent for change? These questions have fascinated me, and below are some snapshots in the history of law which might provide a few answers. I have chosen 7 events which show how much law has developed, and how diverse it is as a discipline. The events I picked span across continents and millennia – if you find them as interesting as I do, then you might want to consider studying law with Cambridge Immerse or even at university.

The Code of Hammurabi, enacted by the sixth Babylonian king, is one of the earliest records of a code of law. The significance of this early code cannot be overstated. It is a primitive constitution, and one of the earliest examples of the presumption of innocence – one of the most pervasive legal concepts of our time. A partial copy of the Code remains, carved into the side of a 2.25m stone slab shaped like an index finger. Roughly half of the 282 laws concerned contracts and transactions; a third dealt with domestic issues, like divorce and inheritance; the remaining provisions deal with issues like judicial and military service.

  • 1754 BC
  • Key people involved: King Hammurabi; Babylonians; citizens worldwide
  • Countries affected: Mesopotamia
  • Global recognition: 7/10
  • A quote about it from a famous person: “The Oldest Code of Laws in the world”, F. W. Maitland, the modern father of English legal history:

A relic of one of the first ever recorded codes of law.

one of the earliest records of a code of law…and a primitive constitution

The Law of the Twelve Tables stood at the foundation of Roman law, consolidating and codifying earlier traditions. The Twelve Tables contained the rights and duties of Roman citizens and formatted the basis of Roman law for a thousand years.
The influence of the Twelve Tables is far-reaching. For example, James Madison highlighted its importance in creating the United States Bill of Right. And while the written form of this law may seem alien to someone familiar with modern expressions of law, the Tables addressed areas of life which remain central to legal regulation today: debt, theft, inheritance, land law, tort law, constitutional law, and so on.

  • Year: c.450 BC
  • Key people involved: Citizens of the Roman Empire
  • Countries affected: The Roman Empire
  • Global recognition: 7/10
  • A quote about it from a famous person: “the Twelve Tables…seems to me, assuredly to surpass the libraries of all the philosophers, both in weight of authority, and in plenitude of utility.” Cicero

The Twelve Tables is the foundation on which many legal systems rest.

The Twelve Tables contained the rights and duties of Roman citizens and formatted the basis of Roman law for a thousand years

If you have ever seen a crime TV show, like CSI: Miami or Sherlock, you will know how important fingerprinting is to criminal investigations. Fingerprinting has become crucial to the enforcement of law, and while the earliest evidence of fingerprinting can be traced all the way back to China in around 450 BC, the first use of it to identify criminal suspects was by Sir William Herschel in India in 1858. It took several decades for the idea to take hold, and in 1901 the first Fingerprint Bureau was founded in Scotland Yard. Forensic science has since become central to criminal investigations, and methods for identifying suspects are ever more sophisticated, but the continued use of fingerprinting is testament to how it revolutionised criminal investigation processes.

  • Year: 1858 AD
  • Key people involved: Sir William Herschel
  • Countries affected:Victims and perpetrators of crime worldwide
  • Global recognition: 8/10
  • A quote about it from a famous person: “As [Sherlock] held the waxen print close to the blood-stain, it did not take a magnifying glass to see that the two were undoubtedly from the same thumb.” Arthur Conan Doyle

Fingerprinting has been crucial to criminal investigations for over a century, and continues to be a key form of evidence in modern legal systems.

the continued use of fingerprinting is testament to how it revolutionised criminal investigation processes

The Nuremberg trials were a series of military trials conducted by the Allied Forces after World War II. Prominent Nazi leaders were prosecuted for their roles in the Holocaust and for war crimes. The trials have been celebrated for bringing architects of the Holocaust to justice. However, many have questioned the trials’ legitimacy as the defendants were prosecuted for retrospective crimes, which goes against principles of the rule of law. The trials have been criticised as “victors’ justice”, and for refusing to be bound by technical rules of evidence. More broadly, the trials marked a key point in the development of a specific international jurisprudence for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression. Along with later international tribunals which dealt with post-conflict resolution in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the tribunal also acted as a model for the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

  • Year: 1945-1946 AD
  • Key people involved: The Allied Forces; the Nazis prosecuted; victims of the Holocaust
  • Countries affected: World War II participant countries
  • Global recognition: 10/10
  • A quote about it from a famous person: “It was the virtue of the Nuremberg trial that it was conceived in hatred of war and nurtured by those starved of peace.” Rebecca West

Arguably the most famous and most controversial criminal trial in history.

the trials have been celebrated for bringing architects of the Holocaust to justice

The International Court of Justice is a tribunal established by the UN Charter as the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice. The ICJ has automatic jurisdiction over all 193 UN members, and occasionally non-UN members. The Court has dealt with a range of contentious issues, from sovereignty violations (DRC v Uganda) to accusations of state-funded paramilitary operations in foreign territories (Nicaragua v United States). Other international law tribunals have since been established, notably the International Criminal Court, which proponents have heralded as a ‘global justice’ movement. This movement is not free from controversy. Detractors are critical of how power politics have influenced proceedings, especially given that the Security Council has the power to stymie the work of both the ICJ and the ICC. Nonetheless, these tribunals and others like them represent a new field of jurisprudence which is fertile ground for legal analysis.

  • Year: 1945 AD
  • Key people involved: Defendants on trial at international law tribunals; their victims and accusers.
  • Countries affected: Every state worldwide
  • Global recognition: 8/10
  • A quote about it from a famous person: “Insofar as international law is observed, it provides us with stability and order and with a means of predicting the behaviour of those with whom we have reciprocal legal obligations.” J. William Fulbright

The ICJ represented the dawn of an international legal order.

these tribunals and others like them represent a new field of jurisprudence which is fertile ground for legal analysis

This landmark decision of the US Supreme Court represents a key moment in the US civil rights movement. The unanimous ruling overturned Plessy v Ferguson and held that de jure racial segregation (i.e. segregation enforced by law) violated the 14th amendment of the US Constitution. This was a momentous victory for racial equality campaigners and paved the way to racial integration.
It also shows the interplay between society and the law: how far is one shaped by the other, and vice versa? The case remains an important touchstone in the history of the civil rights movement, despite the long and ongoing campaign for racial equality in the US.

  • Year: 1954 AD
  • Key people involved: The NAACP; Linda Brown; the United States Supreme Court.
  • Countries affected: American citizens
  • Global recognition: 8/10
  • A quote about it from a famous person: “I was so happy I was delirious.” Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP.

A landmark civil rights case in the march for racial justice in the US.

a momentous victory for racial equality campaigners which paved the way to racial integration

The TRC was established after the end of apartheid in South Africa. It was a court-like structure which offered amnesty in exchange for a full disclosure of Apartheid crimes committed. 140 public hearings were held, over 20,000 oral and written submissions were considered, and in 1998 the TRC published a 2,739-page report on their findings. Crimes committed were documented; their perpetrators were named and held to account; and victims were empowered both by having their experiences recognised, and by being able to ask questions of offenders at public hearings.
The TRC was remarkable in how it refocussed legal processes onto restorative justice, rather than prioritising retribution. Many agree that it was crucial to diffusing post-Apartheid tensions in South Africa and helping the nation towards reconciliation.

  • Year: 1996 AD
  • Key people involved:South Africans; Winnie Mandela; Bishop Desmond Tutu; Nelson Mandela
  • Countries affected: South Africa
  • Global recognition: 9/10
  • A quote about it from a famous person: “All South Africans face the challenge of coming to terms with the past in ways which will enable us to face the future as a united nation at peace with itself.” Nelson Mandela

Restorative justice as the medium for post-Apartheid reconciliation.

remarkable in how it refocussed legal processes onto restorative justice, rather than prioritising retribution

These landmarks show how law and legal questions have been at the epicentre of so many crucial events in global history. They concern civil rights issues, questions of justice, crucial jurisprudential questions, and the relationship between social change, and legal rights and obligations. There are many more moments in legal history worth discovering, and I hope this article spurs you on to learn about them.

ENROL NOW