‘All new wizards must accept that, in entering our world, they abide by our laws.’ – Albus Dumbledore
In an ideal universe, every man, woman, witch, wizard and creature on Earth would get along just fine, respect each other’s rights and settle any disputes amicably and without the need to refer to a higher authority.
Alas, this is not a perfect universe. Consequently, elaborate and complex legal systems have developed throughout human history aimed at maintaining order and disincentivising antisocial behaviours. And while, as we shall see, there are many striking parallels between the Muggle and wizarding legal frameworks, there are just as many differences. After all, just as the Wizengamot has little interest in prosecuting, say, internet piracy in an electricity-free society, a Muggle judge would struggle if confronted with a defendant accused of being drunk in charge of a flying broomstick.
Let’s look at some specific crimes from both worlds and draw comparisons.
Any young witch or wizard itching to mimic their elders and perform spells before the age of 17, at home anyway, will run afoul of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery (1875). The intention of this statute was presumably two-fold: to keep potentially dangerous or hazardous magic out of inexperienced hands prior to their proper education (policed by a Trace detection spell which automatically expires when the young witch or wizard turns 17), and also to prevent Muggles coming into contact with magic, as per the International Statute of Secrecy (1692).
Age-sensitive laws are of course widespread in the Muggle world; this is why Muggles can’t buy a pint of beer before the legal age in their country, for example. Although in the wizarding world, a lot of accidental underage magic tends to just result in a slapped wrist. Harry Potter received a mere written ticking-off for his early transgressions (although technically some were Dobby’s, of course…).
Other wizarding laws that have clear Muggle parallels exist, notably in the field of animal law: Aberforth Dumbledore’s brush with the law for ‘using inappropriate charms on a goat’ needs little elaboration, but it is interesting to note stringent controls on the trade of dragon eggs, the creating of Basilisks, ‘experimental breeding’ in general and (fascinatingly) a statute banning the poaching of the Ramora fish, a magical native of the Indian Ocean.
Taken most seriously, in both legal jurisdictions, are laws which pertain to crimes against the person. The most obvious Muggle examples are those laws which refer to murder or grievous bodily harm. Similarly, a wizarding defendant can expect the harshest sentences for the Darkest magic – the Unforgivable Curses.
While, broadly speaking, punishments meted out are comparable in severity to the crimes to which they refer, discretion plays a part. Harry Potter correctly thought he was due a hiding for swelling Marjorie Dursley up like a balloon, yet was reassured by Cornelius Fudge that the powers-that-be ‘don’t send people to Azkaban just for blowing up their aunts’. This was of course only because Cornelius had an interest in Harry being free; by contrast, when Dolores Umbridge sought to neutralise the young wizard, she used her discretion to (at least try to) punish him most harshly and send him to prison.
This application of discretion needn’t be sneaky, or even serve the greater good. When Igor Karkaroff, for example, was in the frame for his crimes as a Death Eater he managed to reduce the severity of his sentence by volunteering the names of his associates. In Muggle legalese, this kind of legal activity is known as ‘plea-bargaining’.
Curiously, while a witch or wizard on trial at the Wizengamot can nominate a third party to represent them, there don’t appear to be lawyers in the Muggle sense, just a panel who vote in a simple majority (as seen when Ludo Bagman was acquitted by the court by virtue of his status as a popular hero of the English Quidditch team). Perhaps the law isn’t seen as a particularly desirable career choice, as Hermione Granger acidly observed when asked by Rufus Scrimgeour if she sought a career in Magical Law: ‘No I’m not… I’m hoping to do some good in the world!’
Minor infractions are settled in both worlds with fines – such as when Arthur Weasley was penalised 50 Galleons for ‘bewitching a Muggle car’. Custodial sentences are also doled out, but it probably goes without saying that Muggle jails aren’t fit to restrain wizarding kind – as demonstrated by mischievous witch Lisette de Lapin, who broke out of a Parisian cell in 1422, much to the frustration of her would-be executioners. The British wizarding prison Azkaban would seem to be worse than even the highest-security Muggle jail (bringing even the doughty Rubeus Hagrid to tears), especially when patrolled by the soul-sucking Dementors.
For another example of archaic punishment, it’s worth looking across the pond. In 1920s New York, Porpentina Goldstein was suspended in a chair above the death potion, a method of execution hideously reminiscent of the medieval Muggle use of the cucking (or ducking) stool to dunk those accused of crimes in the water, sometimes until they drowned.
While the legal system performs a vital function maintaining order, the wizarding world seems rather prone to mistakes and iffy outcomes. Sometimes this is a result of an unfairly weighted system, as when Buckbeak was sentenced to death for scratching a member of the politically influential Malfoy clan. Also consider when Sirius Black was dispatched to Azkaban for Peter Pettigrew’s crime, though he was later exonerated (no such luck for Morfin Gaunt).
Perhaps, in summing up, it’s worth taking heart from the idea that the law, while imperfect, is flexible. Even sticklers like Percy Weasley saw room for improvement in the system, and Hermione’s tireless championing of house-elf rights reflected a noble tradition (in both worlds) of fighting for justice.