Different countries have different legal systems, which broadly divide into two areas – criminal and civil. The systems have generally evolved over many years or centuries and are influenced by a wide variety of factors including culture, religion and politics. By and large, the rules have been established over many hundreds of years and are generally accepted because they are for the mutual benefit of the population – they are the framework that prevents anarchy. Although there are some common rules (for example concerning murder) that are to be found in every country, there are also considerable variations from country to country in many of the other codes or rules. The laws of a country are usually established by an elected political institution, the population accepts them and they are enforced by the imposition of penalties on those who are found guilty of breaking them.
Members of medical, healthcare and scientific professions are bound by the same general laws as the population as a whole, but they may also be bound by additional laws specific to their area of practice. The training, qualification and registration of doctors, scientists and related professions is of great relevance at the current time, in the light of the recognized need to ensure that evidence, both medical and scientific, that is placed before the court, is established and recognized. Fraudulent professional and ‘hired guns’ risk undermining their own professions, in addition to causing miscarriages of justice where the innocent may be convicted and the guilty acquitted. It is sometime difficult for medical and scientific professionals to realize that their evidence is only part of a body of evidence, and that unlike in the fictional media, the solving of crimes is generally the result of meticulous painstaking and often tedious effort as part of a multi-professional team.
The great diversity of the legal systems around the world poses a number of problems to the author when giving details of the law in a book such as this. Laws on the same aspect commonly differ widely from country to country, and some medical procedures (e.g. abortion) that are routine practice (subject to appropriate legal controls) in some countries are considered to be a crime in others. Within the United Kingdom, England and Wales has its own legal system, and Scotland and Northern Ireland enjoy their own legal traditions which, although distinct from that of England and Wales, share many traditions. There are also smaller jurisdictions with their own individual variations in the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles. Overarching this is European legislation and with it the possibility of final appeals to the European Court. Other bodies (e.g. the International Criminal Court) may also influence regional issues.