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Focus question 1: Why do we need laws?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: The island ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Reasons for laws ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: How did societies and their laws develop?  
Activity 4: Ancient law ESL Activity 4
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  

Activity 1: The island

Law makers

Imagine that your class is on a plane trip overseas. There are another 200 people on the plane.

Suddenly, the plane starts to fall from the sky. It crashes on an uninhabited island.

The good news is that miraculously everyone survives, and the island can provide enough food and water for you all to stay alive.

The bad news is that the pilot tells you that due to strange atmospheric conditions, the plane is untraceable and that, as the area is never flown over or visited, you might be stranded on the island forever.

Everybody realises the need for some laws on the island. You and your group of friends are asked to be the law makers.

1a Read through the eight situations described in the situation box. As each arises, you have to decide whether laws are needed to resolve them. You must give your reasons for each decision. Record your answers in a grid like the one below. Leave the last column, ‘Reason for law’, blank for now.

Is a law needed? (yes/no)
Reason for decision
Reason for law
a One island-dweller kills another while arguing.      
b Several children are without their parents. Whom should they obey?      


a One island dweller kills another while arguing.

b Several children are without their parents. Who should they obey?

c It becomes accepted quite early that no work is to be done on every fifth day, which is set aside as a day of worship. After a year, a few people start ignoring that custom.

d As the rule makers, you and your friends say that you need time to think about law. You suggest that the rest of the community give you food, build you shelter and do all your jobs for you so that you have time to make good laws.

e One person attacks another who has taken some of his food.

f A group starts having parties at night, keeping others awake.

g Some people decide to have two wives or husbands, rather than one.

h Some people discover a large supply of chocolate on the plane, and keep it for themselves.

1b As a whole class, discuss your group decisions, summarising your combined views on each item a to h on the board. Count the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers for the entries in column 2. Copy the board summary into your workbook.

1c Which, if any, situations were given a ‘yes’ by all groups? Suggest why.

1d Which, if any, situations were given a ‘no’ by all groups? Suggest why.

1e In coming to your decisions, you have been discussing and negotiating with others in your group. Do you think this process of discussion helped you to make better decisions than you would have by yourself? Explain your reasons.

1f Using your previous work, suggest the four most important reasons for having laws in a society. Explain your reasons. Present your answers in one of the following forms:

  • poster
  • poem
  • story board for a film
  • cartoon
  • song or rap
  • story
  • speech

Law making has been a feature of human societies for many thousands of years. Laws may arise from religious beliefs, customs, morality (ideas about what is right and wrong), or from a need to ensure that people can live safely. Each society has its particular needs for which particular laws arise. However, many needs are common to all societies.

Activity 2: Reasons for laws

2a Individually or in groups, look at the list of reasons why laws might exist below. These reasons for law and the explanations of them are jumbled. Rewrite the table below in your workbook so that the explanations are correctly matched with the reasons for law.

Reason for law Explanation
Morality To protect people’s rights to do what they want, as long as they do not harm others.
Custom To give special status and power to selected people.
Religious belief To formally accept the ways in which people have behaved as a group over a long period of time.
Personal liberty To ensure people’s physical, mental and financial well-being and prevent them from harming each other.
A smooth-running society To acknowledge what is right and wrong.
Privilege To make a commitment to the teachings of a supreme spiritual being such as a god or spirit.
Protection To develop a society in which people behave well and settle disputes peacefully.

2b Return to the grid in Activity 1a. Complete the last column by inserting the ‘Reason for law’ from Activity 2a that matches the ‘Reason for decision’ in column 3. For example, if you had written that you need a law about killing because killing is wrong, in the last column you would enter ‘morality’ as the reason for the law. If you have a second reason for having a law about killing, make a matching entry in column 3 for that, too.

2c As a whole class, discuss your individual or group answers and record them. Which ‘Reason for law’ have you recorded most often? (For example, does morality appear the most frequently? Or religious belief? Or a smooth-running society?)

These various reasons for laws have existed in different societies over time. Soon you will look at some information on how some of the earliest societies have developed laws. But first - to get an understanding of how different laws and different sources of laws might develop - complete Activity 3.

Activity 3: How did societies and their laws develop?

3a Read the following four statements about how laws have developed as societies have developed.

3b Headings are provided for three of the statements. In your workbook write a short heading to summarise the remaining one.

Laws and societies

Laws for hunter-gatherer societies

The earliest societies were made up of hunters and gatherers who lived in small, mobile groups. They developed many rules about what could and could not be done by certain groups or at certain times. As they were very close to nature, their laws and customs were built on respect for the land which supplied all their needs but which they also had to care for.

? (write your own heading)

The development of domestication of animals and the planned growing of crops allowed societies to became more settled - usually on fertile river plains. As more land was cultivated, permanent settlements developed and the size of their populations grew. New kinds of rules and laws were required for the larger groups who interacted in more complex ways than hunter-gatherers had.

Laws are made public

Some societies began to publicly state their laws. All members of the society became bound by a common set of laws which protected people against sudden changes in decisions by the rulers or law makers.

? (write your own heading)

When some of these small settlements grew into towns, new laws were needed for a range of activities such as trade, loans, protection of property, work, sanitation and water supply. Those who made the laws - often the educated ones such as the priests - grew in power and influence.

Hammurabi’s Code

Activity 4: Ancient law

Hammurabi’s Code

Hammurabi was the King of Babylonia, an ancient civilisation based on the river Euphrates in the area which is now Iraq. Babylonia depended on its agriculture - but it was not just a farming area. Its city of Babylon was large for its times. Babylonian society had three classes of people - aristocracy, freed men and slaves. In about 1780 BC, Hammurabi made a code of 282 laws. Carved in stone, they can be seen today in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Ten Commandments

According to the Bible, the Ten Commandments were handed by God on two stone tablets to the Jewish holy man and leader, Moses, as laws for the Jewish people to follow. The Ten Commandments have an important place in history, and have a continuing importance to many people and some societies today. They have been the main religious and moral code of Christian countries and, in Australia, of most people who have come to the country since 1788.

Extracts from Hammurabi’s Code

The god of Justice, Shamash, called on Hammurabi to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers, so that the strong should not harm the weak ...

3 If anyone brings a charge against a person and cannot prove it, he will, if it is an offence for which the punishment is death, be put to death himself.

5 If a judge tries a case and makes a decision, and if later the decision is shown to be wrong, the judge will pay a fine and be disqualified from judging other cases.

6 If anyone steals the property of the temple or the royal court, he shall be put to death, and the person who receives the stolen goods will also be put to death.

8 If anyone steals animals which belong to a god or to the royal court, the thief will pay thirty times the value; if it belonged to a freed man he shall pay ten times the value.

21 If anyone breaks into a house to steal, he shall be put to death.

23 If a person is robbed and the robber is not caught, the community will compensate him for the goods stolen.

45 If a man rents out his field for crops, and bad weather destroys the crops, the loss falls on the person renting.

134 If a man is captured in war and his wife cannot support herself, the wife can go and live with another person who can support her.

200 If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

201 If he knocks out the teeth of a freed man (ex-slave), he shall pay a fine.

282 If a slave tries to leave his master, his master will cut off the slave’s ear.

The Ten Commandments

1 I am the Lord your God. Do not worship any other gods.

2 Do not worship any graven image [a statue or picture].

3 Do not misuse the name of the Lord.

4 Keep the Sabbath [seventh] day holy.

5 Honour your father and your mother.

6 Do not commit murder.

7 Do not commit adultery [married person having sexual relations with someone other than their husband or wife].

8 Do not steal.

9 Do not give false evidence [tell lies] against your neighbour.

10 Do not covet [desire enviously] your neighbour’s house, nor his wife, nor his servant, nor his ox nor anything that is your neighbour’s.

Exodus 20 in the Bible.

4a In your workbook draw up a grid like the one below to show which of Hammurabi’s laws and which of the Ten Commandments are designed to:

Hammurabi’s Code
The Ten Commandments
protect people’s property    

4b Which laws in the two codes are similar? Which are completely different?

4c Which of Hammurabi’s laws can you see reflected in Australian laws today? Which of them do you think are not appropriate laws for Australia today? Explain why.

4d Which of the Ten Commandments exist as laws in Australia today? Which are not appropriate as laws in Australia? Explain why.

4e Some laws are common to Hammurabi’s code, the Ten Commandments, and Australia today. Do you think this means that certain behaviour is always wrong? Explain your ideas.

Roman law

Long after Hammurabi, between 100 BC and AD 400, the Roman Empire occupied a large part of the world.

One of the challenges Rome faced was to make laws that would suit many different types of societies (for example, farming, city and nomadic communities), many different religious beliefs and customs, and many different existing laws. The Romans tried to base their laws on values and needs they thought were common to all people and every society. Rome’s law still forms the basis of the legal system of many European countries today.

Roman law

4f Construct a list of 15 laws that you think would be needed in every society. Start by considering those laws you identified as common to the Ten Commandments, Hammurabi’s Code and Australian law today. Keep in mind the list of reasons for laws listed in 4a.

4g Compare your list with the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which can be found in Selected Sources.

Assessment task

Collect two newspaper articles about two different laws that apply in Australia today. For each article, write in your workbook:

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

ESL activities

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