History of justice

The history of justice, the struggle to obtain and enforce it, the methods of doing so, and various struggles for legal recognition and civil rights are of interest to many travellers. This article lists a few of the sites associated with the History of Justice and the struggles to obtain it.


Code of Hammurabi

Whilst human society has had laws since the beginning of civilisation if not before, the Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest (around 1750 BCE) written legal codes. It is from originally Babylon in Ancient Mesopotamia but the stele was moved in ancient times and found by archeologists at Susa in Iran; the original is now in the Louvre and there are copies in several other museums. Over the millennia since the composition of that document, "justice" and the laws, rights and responsibilities that back it up have changed greatly. The "rule of law" is for many is a hard won battle, that continues to the present day.

In the 7th century BCE, Athens of Ancient Greece got its first constitution and codified system of law, both written by Draco. Many of the penalties were extremely harsh — slavery for unpaid debt to someone of higher social standing, death for minor thefts, and so on — so much so that "draconian" is still used to describe harsh laws. Most of his laws were repealed by Solon in the next century, but one part of his code survives in modern law. As far as is known, he was the first to make a legal distinction between deliberate murder and unintentional homicide.

With the founding of the Roman Empire, Athenian law would serve as the inspiration for Roman law, which would in turn serve as the basis for the civil law system that eventually became the official legal system in the whole of continental Europe, especially since the Napoleonic Code was adopted by many countries during the Napoleonic Wars. Case precedents could be useful references, but they don't bind courts except in limited cases. Germany promulgated a Penal Code in 1871 and another Civil Code in 1881, which serves as templates for other-than-France civil law jurisdictions. Most of these legal codes are extremely long-lasting, endured multiple regime changes and have been amended for countless times: the Napoleonic Code is effective since 1804, while the Austrian Civil Code was enacted in 1812 when the Habsburg family was in power. Civil law would eventually spread to the rest of the world due to European colonialism from the 16th to 20th centuries.

England, on the other hand, would instead develop its own legal system that differed significantly from the Roman legal system following the fall of the Roman Empire. This system had its origins in the Norman conquest of England in the 12th century (see Medieval Britain and Ireland), during which King Henry II tried to adopt a set of laws that was "common" throughout the whole of England, thus the name common law. This was achieved in part by requiring the king's judges to base their decisions on each other's previous decisions, thus leading to an emphasis on precedents, and less emphasis on codified law; a difference which endures to this day between common law and civil law systems. English common law would also give rise to the jury system, in which citizens with no legal background would be called upon to intervene in disputes and pass verdicts. Eventually, with the formation of the United Kingdom, common law would spread beyond England and be adopted throughout the British Isles (though Scotland continues to use a hybrid system with both common law and civil law elements), and eventually beyond that to the rest of the British Empire.

While not as widespread as civil law, common law continues to be the legal system used in much of the former British and American colonial empires. That said, to address evolving societal problems, statute law now takes a more important position. Some common law jurisdictions also codify their law by enacting new statute law to supersede obsolete case law, correct legal irregularities or clarify legal principles laid down by precedents, some of them would be referenced or applied in other jurisdictions. This is particularly seen in criminal law, where judge-made common law offences that are not found on statute books are increasingly being replaced by statute law offences, or simply abolished in whole.

In Imperial China, the first unified legal system was developed during reign of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (259 BC - 210 BC), based on a philosophy known as Legalism (法家 fǎ jīa), which was developed by various Chinese philosophers during the Warring States Period (475 BC - 221 BC). However, as the punishments prescribed in Legalism were extremely harsh, they caused a lot of resentment, leading to principles from Confucianism replacing many Legalist principles with the founding of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220). This hybrid system combining principles from both Legalism and Confucianism served as the basis for Chinese law until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, when the nascent Republic of China replaced it with a system based on civil law. Due to a history of Chinese influences in these areas, Chinese law would also heavily influence Japanese and Korean law until the end of the Edo Period (1603 - 1868) and Joseon Dynasty (1392 - 1910) respectively, when these were also replaced with systems based on civil law. The legal systems in modern China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are based primarily on civil law, albeit with influences from traditional Chinese Legalist and Confucian principles. In Hong Kong, although the judiciary primarily follows English common law, certain Chinese customary law is protected by law, including polygamy until 1971 and the small house policy which allows male indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories to build their own houses on private land. Even after polygamy was outlawed after 1971, existing polygamy marriages are protected by law, and the judiciary still needs to refer to relevant practices when dealing with derived court cases.

As a general rule, most countries have a legal system that broadly fall into one of three categories; Roman Civil Law, English Common Law and Islamic Sharia Law. Islamic Sharia Law is followed most prominently by Saudi Arabia, but also many other Muslim countries in the Middle East and beyond. Countries often adopt mixed systems which use different legal systems in different contexts; for instance, Israel usually follows the common law system, but uses Sharia law when dealing with marriages and family affairs for Muslims. Federal countries may also adopt different legal systems at different levels of government; although the U.S. and Canadian federal governments both follow common law, the state government of Louisiana and provincial government of Quebec follow civil law based on the French model.

Another distinction between different judicial systems is between the adversarial and inquisitorial systems, with civil law jurisdictions typically adopting the inquisitorial system, and common law jurisdictions typically adopting the adversarial system. In the inquisitorial system, the court itself plays an active role in the investigation process. In some cases, judges are encouraged to do field research to obtain first-handed evidence. In the adversarial system, the court serves as an impartial referee whose only role is to pass verdicts based on the evidence presented, and the role of investigation is largely left to both parties. In the European Middle Ages, trial by combat was used in Germanic law, in which both parties, or their representatives (known as champions), would fight to death or surrender in single combat, and the winning party would be declared right. When it was abolished in early modern times, duelling remained an extralegal method to resolve disputes until the early 20th century, as it was criminalized in most countries.

Sentences have varied between times and places. While capital punishment was common in ancient jurisdictions, the long-term trend has been to abolish it, or to reserve it for murder, or crimes against national security. Outlawing was an option used in Germanic law, meaning that the condemned lost all legal protections, and could be killed without consequence. Amputation of hands, feet or other body parts has been a humiliating and incapacitating punishment used around the world, phased out in most countries in modern times, but still carried out in Saudi Arabia and Brunei. Corporal punishment such as whipping has been used especially in less formal jurisdictions, such as the military, against slaves, and in schools, but some former British colonial and Islamic jurisdictions also used them, perhaps with Singapore as one of the most famous/notorious examples.

While prisons have existed in most legal systems, they have mainly been used for remanding people until trial, to hold prisoners of war for ransom, or for death row. Prison time became a commonly used sentence in itself only in the 19th century, with rehabilitation programs adopted through the 20th century. Many fortifications have been used as prisons. Community sentences such as community service and probation have become commonly used for lesser crime in the 20th century, with electronic tagging as one of the most recent criminal justice reforms.

Major courts of the modern era

Map of History of justice

Most national capitals have the nation's Supreme Court, and often there are tours or a museum. In addition the national capital will typically be where the national assembly or parliament or Congress sits, such locations also sometimes offering tours. Federal countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia will usually also have state/provincial supreme courts in their respective state/provincial capitals.

Some courts are mentioned below.

International courts:

National courts:

  • The Supreme Court, Washington D.C, United States.
  • The Royal Courts of Justice, London
  • The Central Criminal Court (aka The Old Bailey), London
  • Middlesex Guildhall, London – home to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which was formed in 2009 to take over the judicial role of the House of Lords as the highest court of appeal.
  • High Court of Australia, Canberra.

Depending on the jurisdiction, a few courts will allow interested parties, such as journalists and law students, to view a small number of live sessions of the court, from a public gallery. Admission is typically by advance application, and for important cases, with very heavy security. If seats are available in the public gallery, most common law jurisdictions will allow members of the public to view court proceedings live except when the judge decides otherwise (e.g. juvenile cases or cross-examining a vulnerable witness), but require them to remain silent throughout the proceedings. Not all cases that come before a court will be of general interest, though; many can be highly technical and seem impenetrable to a lay observer.

Historical sites


Crime scenes

Thulehuset is the building at Sveavägen 44. In the right street corner, Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986.
  • 1 Olof Palme assassination scene (Norrmalm, Stockholm, Sweden). In 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot to death. The assassin escaped along Tunnelgatan, and the street nearby was renamed Olof Palmes gata to commemorate the victim. Since then, the murder has inspired novelists and conspiracy theorists. See Stockholm history tour for context. assassination of Olof Palme (Q3284177) on Wikidata Assassination of Olof Palme on Wikipedia
  • 2 Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (Dallas, United States). An unfortunate part of Dallas' history is that it is the site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Texas Book Depository is the site where shots were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, and the museum is on the sixth floor of the same building, with an extra exhibition on the seventh. It is a moving experience with videos, full-wall descriptions and photographs, along with artifacts from the event. The museum's gift shop is in a different building. Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (Q3498048) on Wikidata Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza on Wikipedia
  • 3 Lake Bodom murders scene (Espoo, Finland). The most infamous unsolved homicide case in the Finnish crime history that happened in June 1960. Lake Bodom murders (Q1995107) on Wikidata Lake Bodom murders on Wikipedia


  • 4 Þingvellir National Park (Iceland). Before modern times the home to the Alþing; founded in 930, it is the world's oldest surviving legislature, and was also Iceland's highest court for centuries.
  • 5 Magna Carta Monument at Runnymede (Runnymede, England.). A domed classical temple built by the American Bar Association and containing a pillar of English granite on which is inscribed 'To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law'. Magna Carta Monument (Q26677636) on Wikidata Runnymede#Magna_Carta_Memorial on Wikipedia




  • 6 Justice and Police Museum, Phillip St, Sydney CBD. A former police station and court during the mid-19th century which has since been converted into a museum. The main theme is crime and punishment for most of New South Wales's colonial period, with a few artefacts here and there. Justice and Police Museum (Q42915912) on Wikidata Justice and Police Museum on Wikipedia


  • 7 RCMP Museum. The Mounties have a museum in Regina, Sakatchewan. The city is also the location of their main training base, Depot Division, and tours of that can be booked at the museum in summer months. RCMP Heritage Centre (Q3944745) on Wikidata RCMP Heritage Centre on Wikipedia

Nordic countries

The police museum in Tampere, Finland






  • 11 Glasgow Police Museum (Glasgow, Scotland). The Glasgow police force was the first in the world, dating back to 1779. It's dealt with a number of famous cases and many of the paraphernalia relating to some of these are in this museum. There's also a section dealing with the history of police forces throughout the world. Free.
  • 14 National Justice Museum, Nottingham, High Pavement, Nottingham.
  • 15 Peterhead Prison Museum, Peterhead. Opened in 1888, Peterhead Prison had the reputation as "Scotland's toughest prison". Until the 1950s, inmates were subjected to penal labour, working in a nearby quarry and constructing the town's southern breakwater. The museum offers self-guided tours of the former prison, taking 1 hr 30 min to 2 hr. HM Prison Peterhead (Q5635245) on Wikidata HM Prison Peterhead on Wikipedia



Visiting prisons


Most jails and prisons allow visits by friends and relatives of prisoners and some have tours.

A prison in Cebu City in the Philippines has a monthly event where inmates put on a performance and often dance with visitors.

Four prisons in the United Kingdom have public restaurants run by The Clink Charity, where you can have a quality lunch or dinner prepared and served by prisoners. You need to book in advance and observe prison rules on dress and what you may bring with you.

Historical prisons


Some sites where people were imprisoned during World War II are covered in other articles. See Holocaust remembrance for the German concentration camps and Pacific War for both Japanese prisons and US internment of Japanese Americans.

Château d'If, with Marseille in the background
  • 21 Château d'If. A French fortress and later prison on an island just off Marseille. In Dumas' novel The Count of Monte Cristo the protagonist Edmond Dantès is imprisoned there and escapes. There are tours available.
  • 22 Alcatraz (San Francisco bay). Perhaps the best known former prison in the US, and whilst active was long considered escape proof. There are tours available.
  • The Bastille was a fortress in Paris that served as the main prison for the King's political prisoners. The French national day is July 14th, commemorating the storming of the Bastille in 1789, an event that has come to symbolize the French Revolution even though only seven people were imprisoned at the Bastille at that moment. The building itself has long since been torn down; today the Place de la Bastille is a fashionable area of bars and shops but the history is far from forgotten.
  • In Stalin's era (1920s-40s) many Russia political prisoners were sent to gulag work camps, mainly in Kolyma. Towns with relevant museums include Magadan and Perm. The Russian Far East was a destination for exile, forced settlement and colonization before, and modern Russia still tries to entice people to go there, sometimes as punishment for a crime.
  • The Old Melbourne Gaol in Melbourne is a former maximum security prison where some of Australia's most famous outlaws, such as the famous bushranger Ned Kelly, were incarcerated and hanged.
  • 23 Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Project, Mansfield, Ohio, USA, . The Ohio State Reformatory (OSR), also known as the Mansfield Reformatory, is a historic prison built between 1886 and 1910. It remained in operation until 1990, when a court ruling ordered the facility to be closed. While this facility was seen in a number of films, TV shows and music videos, it was made famous by the film The Shawshank Redemption (1994) when it was used for most scenes of the movie. Ohio State Reformatory (Q2898265) on Wikidata Ohio State Reformatory on Wikipedia
  • 24 Peterhead Prison Museum, Peterhead, Scotland, UK. Peterhead was opened in 1888 to be the convict prison for Scotland. The convicts worked in quarries, and in constructing the harbour's south breakwater, with (until 1939) lashings to enliven any dull moments. Penal labour was abolished in 1950 but Peterhead's ethos didn't change much, being seen as a particularly bleak punitive place. HM Prison Peterhead (Q5635245) on Wikidata HM Prison Peterhead on Wikipedia
  • 25 Robben Island (South Africa). Formerly a prison incarcerated the opponents of Apartheid. Among the prisoners was Nelson Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the first post-Apartheid president of South Africa. Robben Island (Q192493) on Wikidata Robben Island on Wikipedia
  • 26 Sinop Fortress Prison (Sinop, Turkey). Established in 1887 and closed down in 1997, the prison grounds within the town's fortress are now open for sightseeing. Sinop Fortress Prison (Q7524921) on Wikidata Sinop Fortress Prison on Wikipedia
  • 27 Swedish Prison Museum (Sveriges Fängelsemuseum), Gävle, Sweden. In two buildings. Start in the main block, the 19th-century two-storey former jail. Then the annex on nearby Timmermansgatan depicts its 18th-century predecessor.
  • 28 Ulucanlar Prison Museum (Ankara, Turkey). Established in 1925, Ulucanlar had a significant role in political repression in Turkey. It was converted to a prison museum in 2011, the first of its kind in the country. Ulucanlar Prison Museum (Q190497) on Wikidata Ulucanlar Prison Museum on Wikipedia
  • 29 Yedikule Fortress (Istanbul's Old City, Turkey). Part of Istanbul's ancient land walls, the fortress served as a prison for high-level detainees, including a sultan who was executed there, during the Ottoman era. Yedikule Fortress (Q632795) on Wikidata Yedikule Fortress on Wikipedia

Prison colonies


In the era when European Powers ruled much of the world many of them established penal colonies and criminals, or political troublemakers, were often sentenced to "transportation".

From the 1600s to the late 1700s, Britain's preferred destinations for prisoners were the North American colonies that today form part of the United States of America, in particular the colonies of Maryland and Virginia. With the start of the American War of Independence in 1775 and subsequent independence of the colonies, this practice became untenable and an alternative penal colony had to be found.

  • With the founding of the colony of New South Wales in 1788, convict transportation to Australia began and would continue until the last convict ship departed Britain for Western Australia in 1868. Although descendants of the transported convicts are a minority in modern Australia, this convict heritage has been embraced as part of the Australian national identity; having some convicts among your ancestors is something of a status symbol, much as having ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower is in the US.
The UNESCO World Heritage List has a listing for eleven Australian convict sites; one of the largest is Port Arthur (Tasmania) and among the most isolated is Norfolk Island. Fremantle Prison near the city of Perth is also on the UNESCO list; it originally served as a detention centre for transported convicts, then as Western Australia's maximum security prison until it was closed down in the 1990s. Many convict descendants get married in the prison chapel as a homage to their convict heritage.
  • The Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean were used by the British Raj as a penal colony, mainly for native prisoners. The Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of the Four revolves around four Britons imprisoned there.
  • The French had several penal colonies in French Guiana. One of them was the archipelago of 30 Salvation Islands Salvation Islands on Wikipedia (Îles du Salut) off Kourou, including Devil's Island (Île du Diable). The penal colony, in use between 1852 and 1953, received the worst criminals of France, and the prison was notorious for its harsh treatment of the inmates — few could ever return to mainland France to tell about how horrible life here was. The novel and film Papillon describe an escape from these islands. Political prisoners were also held here, such as the famous victim of anti-Semitism Albert Dreyfus.
  • New Caledonia was another penal colony for the French, and ruins of some of the old prisons can still be seen.
  • Siberia and the Russian Far East were used as penal colonies where convicts of the Russian Empire were sent to perform forced labour. This would later be transformed into the gulag system under the Soviet Union. Much of the infrastructure still in use in these regions today was built by convict labour during Imperial Russian and Soviet times.
  • Hainan was often used as a place of exile in Imperial China for court officials who had offended the emperor but were deemed too talented to kill. The Temple of the Five Lords in Haikou is dedicated five Tang and Song Dynasty officials who had been banished there by the emperor.
  • 31 Islas Marías Federal Penal Colony. - was a federal prison in Mexico on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean that operated up until 2019. The penal colony has housed political prisoners as well as notorious drug cartel members. Today, visitors can tour the prison facilities by taking a weekend excursion to Islas Marias (independent travel is not permitted), but the government-run weekend excursions include ferry transportation, lodging, meals and guided tours. On the island, the prison facility is known as Laguna del Toro. Islas Marías Federal Prison on Wikipedia

Neither was solely a prison colony, but two islands are famous as places of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte. He was first sent to Elba in the Mediterranean, but escaped and returned to France. After Waterloo he was exiled again, this time to Saint Helena, an isolated island in the middle of the South Atlantic.

Prison hotels


In some places, former prisons, have been refurbished after their judicial use, and are now used as tourist accommodation of all things. Most are youth hostels offering only rather spartan facilities.

  • 1 Malmaison Oxford Prison Hotel (Oxford, UK). Set in the old prison, this modern quirky 4-star hotel also allows pets!
  • 2 Långholmen (Stockholm/Södermalm). Spectacular hostel built in an old prison where you actually stay in the old cells (making them limited to the size). The place is clean, and the staff is nice and friendly. The atmosphere is really one of a kind.
  • 3 Hotell Gamla Fängelset (Old Prison Hotel) (Umeå, Sweden). An old prison converted to a hostel. 10-minute walk to city centre, 20-minute walk to campus. Umeå Old Prison (Q4491003) on Wikidata Umeå Old Prison on Wikipedia
  • 4 The Old Mount Gambier Gaol (Mount Gambier, Australia). Spectacular former laidback hostel in a 1886 era former jail. Visitors here sleep in the cells.
  • 5 Visby Fängelse Vandrarhem (Visby, Sweden). A former prison turned into a hostel.
  • 6 Ottawa Jail Hostel. The former county jail building is now a hostel and visitors sleep in the cells. See listing in the Ottawa article for details.
  • 7 Fremantle Prison YHA (Perth/Fremantle, Western Australia). 202-bed hostel in the former prison - some beds are in old cells and some are in a new building
  • 8 Jailhouse Accommodation (Christchurch, New Zealand). Heritage backpacker accommodation with a colourful history - the former Addington Prison (closed to inmates in 1999). The Jailhouse has single, double, twin, dorm and family rooms. Wi-Fi and free parking.
  • 9 Four Seasons Sultanahmet (Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey). The jailhouse was built in 1918 in Turkish neoclassical style. Among its inmates was Billy Hayes of Midnight Express fame. In 1992 it was converted to a luxury hotel. Sultanahmet Jail (Q851710) on Wikidata Sultanahmet Jail on Wikipedia
  • 10 Hotel Katajanokka (Katajanokka, Helsinki, Finland). A former Helsinki County Prison turned into a hotel.

See also

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