So, I'm working on building a state (kingdom to be more precise) as part of my world, and as part of that exercise I want there to be some contact between characters in said world and the legal system, so I need to define to at least some degree what that state's legal/governmental system is like, how it functions, and such. Furthermore, they'll need to be able to to reference at least some sort of written legal code or statute (and it will also help me ensure consistency, which is important when you're trying to present a world where due process is upheld).

However, there are many aspects of a legal code or statute that are not obvious to a layperson, but are actually at least somewhat necessary for a society at even a Dark Ages level to function, never mind a higher level:

  • The existence of a bureaucracy implies some sort of administrative code
  • Property rights need to be defined and codified by law as well
  • Taxation seems obvious, but can be quite subtle all the same
  • Public works schemes may need to be provided for, too

How do I make sure I don't miss things like these that are not high-profile elements of society (unlike basic criminal statutes or the structure of government itself, although it's probably just as easy to forget some of the criminal statutes that don't come out in the popular eye) but are equally necessary for the functionality of an organized, writing-capable, food-surplus-based society as a general rule?

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    $\begingroup$ I love this question, because even if it's never referenced or used, having your laws and things written down (Even in a more writer-referency form) allows you to be consistent with the world and story. And can give your characters more depth. Al Capone was famously nabbed on tax charges, so it's even real-world relevant. $\endgroup$
    – Andon
    Oct 22, 2017 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ You might want to include religious laws if your world has an organised religion. The most obvious things to consider are: 1) tributes to the church (money, labour, etc.); 2) family matters (marriage, divorce, paternity/maternity, etc.); 3) Judicium Dei (trials by ordeal, fire, combat, etc.) . $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Oct 24, 2017 at 10:36

5 Answers 5


Some major legal codes in the world right now include Common Law and Civil Law.

Common Law is the most often portrayed in media because it is the law system of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and a good chunk of the world (about 2.25 Billion People) live in a Common Law (or mostly common law... Scotland is weird, Quebec and Louisiana have some elements of French derived Civil Law, Isreal and India use religious laws/nation of origin laws in family and personal law (i.e. Marriage).

The Hallmarks of a Common Law system include the concept of Stare Decisis (latin, roughly means "the decision must stand"). This means that if a court in a common law system has two very similar cases, the court must decide in the same way for both outcomes as must all lower courts below that court. In addition, common law allows courts to see precedence in other jurisdictions and use them in deciding cases. The bulk of modern negligence law in nearly all common law countries comes from courts in Scotland, not local legislation. This isn't always the case, though. For example, in the United States, if a law contradicts the constitution, than the common law decision isn't good. It also makes it that some laws are never quite "statutory" or written down. England only recently got a "statutory" murder law on it's books. Prior to that, murder was a common law offense. Similarly, Michigan did not have a "statutory murder law" until the 1990s when it suddenly became important and Maryland does not have Statutory Murder to this day.

This is likely a boon to your kingdom as Common Law does not have a codified book of rules that you can read... but years of "we decided this long ago".

Another feature is the Jury Trial. In law, there are two elements called "Trier of Law" and "Trier of Fact". The Trier of Law is the person who answers the question "Is this illegal" and in Common Law, it's normally a Judge. The Trier of Fact is the person who answers "Did the illegal act occur?" and that is a Jury.

The big difference in Civil Law (and it's predecessor, Roman Law) is that Judgements do not set precedence for future judgements (but may be used persuasively) and that the court is Inquisitorial (as opposed to Adversarial, in the Jury Trial system). This means that the judge is both Trier of Law and Trier of Fact, and may thus ask questions of the witnesses. Civil Law also uses Statutory Laws, which means each crime is written down somewhere and the sentencing is prescribed with the law. Sentencing is also part of the trial phase in Civil Law, so mitigating factors (and aggravating factors) play an important part in the this part of the trial, where they have no bearing in a Common Law trial (you are sentenced after you're found guilty). This is why "We were just following orders" was thought by the Germans at Numberg to be an effective defense. In German Civil Law, having no personal motivation in your crime (such as you did it because it was your job and not because you had a personal ill will to the victim) was a very mitigating factor. Because Numberg used Common Law (because U.S. and UK could get behind Common Law, where as French Civil and Soviet Civil Law were not quite compatible). The problem the Germans faced was that Common Law first determines that the crime happened, then determines the degree of guilt.

Most of Mainland Europe and non-England European Colonies use Civil Law. The only other legal systems I can offer are Sharia Law... and that's all I'll say on that... Catholic Cannon Law (which is all but extinct, it's only used for some elements of criminal code in Vatican City, but they are more likely to use Italian Law).

Japanese Law from the late 1800s onward is some form of Civil Law (much of Japanese government as a whole are borrowed from European systems that worked. They have German Diet parliment, U.S. Constitution, British Post, French Civil Law, but with American Plea Bargaining). Prior to that, it was largely based on law dictated by Feudal Lords. They largely adopted Civil Law in the Meiji Restoration because it closely resembled their own Feudal systems. Recently, they also adopted "Citizen Judges" which is sort of a Jury system. Three Judges are career judges while the rest (up to seven, I think... it varies on crime) are similar to a United States Jury. The difference here is that Simple Majority is needed for Not Guilty while a Guilty verdict needs a Simple Majority and must include at least one career Judge in that vote.

Hope this was helpful. Law systems are a hobby of mine, so feel free to ask questions.

Edit: Related to statutes there is a significant difference in how they are written in Common Law and Civil Law. Because of Stare Decisis, rulings on a particular law are effectively an addition to that law. This means that from the legislative side of the house, a new law doesn't have to be a tome covering every possible scenario. For example, in most of the rest of the world, Anti-Trust laws are massively complex. In the United States, the Sherman Anti-Trust act was originally passed with three sentences. The scope of what is the law is still quite large, but that entirely originates from case law AND a few legislation acts to fix what some case law broke. As discussed earlier, several common law jurisdictions didn't have any statute against murder (though they did have sentencing guide lines) until relatively recently.

Conversly, as stated in a comment, Civil Law can review established case law as a sort of guideline, but isn't obligated to rule the same way in a similar case UNLESS the legislature has codified the ruling into an actual law. Thus, they tend to have numerous statutes that are long reads covering as many possible questions as they can think of.

Another final topic on Common Law: While this is not true of all jurisdictions, many common law systems require that there be an actual real case, and not a hypothetical. If, for example, in the United States I sue the government for failure to recognize that Vampires have rights under the constitution, I must be a Vampire to make my case. The fact that I am not would immediately get the case thrown out of court because I have no stake in vampires rights (Pun intended... it helps hammer home the point.).

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah -- perhaps you could expand more on how common vs civil law influences what categories, if you will, of statute I have to cover? $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Oct 23, 2017 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ The Napoleonic Code. Still used extensively. Quebec (in Canada) is an example. $\endgroup$ Oct 24, 2017 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ To add on the importance of prior judgements, Civil Law judges will still look at it to determine how the law should be interpreted and applied, for example in new cases no-one had thought before and aren't yet covered by specific laws. The Legislative body then can decide that jurisprudence is fine, or add specific laws to cover the new cases. $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    Oct 24, 2017 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Shalvenay: Basically what Eth said. I'll provide an edit. $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Oct 24, 2017 at 12:26

You can't, no one ever does, not even in the modern world; we have no inclusive laws only exclusive ones, i.e. our modern codes of law exclude specific acts as being illegal rather than setting some independent standard of legality that all acts can be measured against. That being the case you can never not miss bits and pieces. You build as much of the system as you can in shallow detail (this is my guiding principle when building anything for an RPG because PCs are unpredictable so you never know what you're going to need but also flighty so you rarely need anything for long, or twice) and remember that by and large in a feudal society the law is what the lord of the land you are standing on says it is unless you can appeal to the lord he owes vassalage to.

Three categories of crime should do you, what they once called the high justice the middle and the low. The low justice deals with petty crimes and is limited to fines and extra duties (as in tax, but often exacted in labour). The middle justice dealt with more serious crimes and penalties extended to crippling fines that could include land seisures, flogging and the stocks. High justice was the right to hand down maiming and death in judgement and dealt with potentially capital crimes, as a rule rape, murder, and treason. The "tenant in chief" was the land owner who reported directly to the Monarch and was invested with rights of the high, the middle and the low, middle and low justice were often the province of appointees like bailiffs who oversaw land on behalf of others, the right of high justice was often also held by anyone who held land by "right of service" i.e. they gave military service to the ultimate owner of the grant in return for their land, but those subsidiary lords could be overruled by their patron lord.

Anyway most of that is flavour and detail work that you may or may not want; the point is if you have three broad categories of justice you also have three broad categories of crime and "threatened article" (basically what the crime involves a lose of; an item, a livelihood, a life) and three tiers of officialdom to deal with those levels, this gives you a very basic structure into which you can plug NPCs at need by asking how serious the situation is (either from the consequences you want or from the situation underway) and then carrying on from there.


Why do you need a legal system?

Because you want to set up rules for your society, to reduce conflict between its members. Sometimes you also want to oppress some parts of your society and favour others. You mentionned a monarchy, so you will have some established privileges for your nobility.

A few basic thoughts you should consider when setting up a new rule for your society are the following:

  • Which problem are you trying to solve?
  • Does your proposed rule address this problem? Is your proposed rule adequate for solving this problem? (i.e. not too weak or too strong?)
  • And, often overlooked, but very important: can this rule be used against its purpose? Or in other words: does it have potential to be abused?

Typically, there won't be one good and failproof answer.
So you will need to come up with a system of checks and balances, that comes into action when your original rule alone becomes unbalanced or abused.

Law-making is not an act, that starts and ends at any specific points of time, but it is a process and evolves constantly. Your society changes, or progresses, new ideas, new technology, new needs and chances arise, requiring new rules to be made, and old rules to be adapted and some to be removed.

What does that mean for your question?

You are in the process of building a fictional world, and not a real-life setup. Good for you, otherwise you would need a very large group of people and many, many years of time to come up with even a skeleton of this systm.

In your fictional world, the most important bit is not the laws but the story. you should draft, roughly, the general setup. Do you want a system that is considered fair, or oppressive? By which groups in society? Which parts of it are necessary for your story? Can you find a real-life example that fits your bill? If so, use this, and adapt only where necessary. That also helps with understanding the concept.

Draft those laws or general rules that you need for your story, spend some time on considering the bullet points above, but don't elaborat them in your story: all you need is to make sure there are no obvious holes, to suspend disbelief in your reader.


study the legal system of middle ages, that should help. There are many histories who study the middle ages and love to write about things like "The none high-profile elements of the dark ages legal structure." Im sure there is a journal out somewhere that covers it you just have find it, which can't be that hard it you have the internet


Visit the meetings of your town or city council, watch as much on the legislative channels as you can, visit courtrooms to see how they function, and generally become a good civic citizen.

But whatever you do, do NOT use Trump as an example of civic responsible government.

Alternately, write your book, and have it reviewed by knowledgeable critics, and take their advice to heart.

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    $\begingroup$ A good general on-line reference is the Avalon Project. You might want to start with The Code of Hammurabi one of the very first human society legal codes. $\endgroup$ Oct 22, 2017 at 23:30
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    $\begingroup$ -1 for mixing real life politics when it could be avoided. Discussions about Trump (or any other flame war topic) should only happen in alternative earth questions, and only when really needed. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Oct 23, 2017 at 6:25
  • $\begingroup$ The OP specifically asked for references to understand OUR earthly political system. In that context, Trump is fair game. America sets itself up as THE political-legal system to emmulate. My addendum is valid. $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2017 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ Op is building kingdom. Ages before Trump would be relevant. Also, USA-centric approach is no good if question is not about alter USA. It limits usability of an answer as audience here is from all around the globe. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Oct 23, 2017 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Ian The American system goes back to the 1600's, and John Locke had a lot of input - the Constitution of the Carolinas. Britain still was in conflict between a monarchical and a parliamentary system. The concept of the Divine Right of Kings still prevailed in political factions in England. Feedback from The Constitution of the Carolinas formed in part the basis of the American Constitution. Trump is the inevitable result of that process. The choice of a system of government must consider the historical consequences of that system. $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2017 at 16:54

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