We think today that an effective judicial system is necessary for any society to function and provide justice to its citizens. The concept of justice, in fact, has evolved from very early written history, showing some similarities early on with modern ideas of law and justice for individuals. Laws and a formal judicial system developed over time in an attempt to punish crimes and regulate commerce.
By the mid-third millennium BC, concepts of precedent and jurisprudence had developed, where judges would decide cases on civil and criminal matters. Laws were seen as a way to dispense justice, a key quality for kings in their service to the gods. Some of the earliest laws, although very likely even earlier laws existed, derive from the ancient Sumarian city of Lagash, located in southern Mesopotamia (southern Iraq), during the reign of Urukagina. The laws or edicts seem to have been written at around 2350 BC.  Remarkably, already at this early date there was a clear understanding of individual rights and checks to prevent the abuse of power by authorities. This included limits seizure of land by the temples, which were powerful institutions by this time, or wealthy individuals. There was a check on state tax collection, while efforts were made to dispense justice in cases of murder and criminal actions such as theft. Unlike the later Laws of Hammurabi, there does not seem to be an emphasis on capital punishment for criminal actions. Cases of divorce were removed from state authority to a civil matter. The king even returned land and other property his predecessors had seized; the laws state that they are intended to protect the vulnerable in society, particularly widows and orphans. While these early laws are fragmentary, as the entire legal code and proceedings are not known, they do show that individuals were provided with rights to prevent abuse by authorities and to remove state authority from certain types of family matters.
On the other hand, some have suggested there is evidence that the laws also enshrined men’s authority in society. There seems to be a ban on polyandry, or marriage of multiple men by a woman, while no evidence indicates polygamy was banned. A punishment for adultery seems to have existed for women, but there is no evidence any punishment was enacted on men. Overall, scholars see these laws as an attempt to reform society, which may have become increasingly controlled by a limited number of authorities and abuse of common citizens became more common. The laws are seen to have attempted to rebalance power and provide protection to common citizens.
Categories: Legal History