It’s important for a kingdom to have a legal system. Whether the system is honest or corrupt is entirely up to you. Keep in mind that a more interesting story would have an intricate legal system with many flaws. I’ll only be talking about legal matters in this post; a section about government in high fantasy will be written in the future.
Let’s discuss who runs the show. Often the king or ruler makes the law and carries it out, but since it’s your story, you can do whatever you want. In my high fantasy, I have several types of law enforcement. In my main kingdom’s capital city, a constable takes care of things. He investigates all crimes and only brings the major cases to the king (i.e. crimes involving people of status in society). In small provinces, a council decides the fate of offenders.
You have to decide which crimes are punishable, which types of punishment are legal, and where criminals go after their sentence is carried out. Does your kingdom have the death penalty? What methods are used to kill criminals? Petty thefts were usually punishable by throwing the thief in the stocks or in jail for a night. In some cases, a finger or hand was cut off for thievery. (The lesson to be learnt here is to never steal.)
Some people will no doubt take the law into their own hands, so you have to consider whether or not the making of arms is legal in your kingdom. Can commoners make and wield weapons? Mass weapon production could be seen as the beginnings of rebellion, so you’ll have to decide on rules for people other than soldiers to own weapons.
Torture is another thing to consider when talking about the law. Obviously it’s a crime to torture someone, but will the soldiers of your kingdom arrest someone torturing a person or will they turn a blind eye? And is torture allowed in the dungeons of your kingdom?
When people are caught in the act of doing something illegal, are they given a fair trial or are they instantly found guilty? If your kingdom considers itself to be “modern” you’ll have to implement a court system into your story. The court, however, would most likely be bias. Rich nobles could buy their way out of a crime by paying off the judge or jury, while poor folk were judged harshly because of their low status in society. No one would represent these people, either, for fear of tarnishing their reputation by associating with them. Poor people also couldn’t afford lawyers, like those with money.
You have to think about the security of your kingdom, as well. Guards patrol the castle and its walls, but are they concerned with the rest of the kingdom? In my high fantasy, the richer side of my capital city is heavily patrolled but the poorer side hardly sees attention; crimes happen every day with no trace of authority to stop them. The king has little to no concern for what goes on there, thus showing the legal system is flawed.
Prisons or dungeons should be mentioned in your epic fantasy, especially if you have a character involved with the law or a character who often finds his/herself pursed by the law. I like the idea of a castle’s dungeon being reserved for the most dangerous criminals while the rabble waste away in small prisons. Be mindful of the atmosphere inside a prison, too. Many criminals die within prisons because of sharing cramped, dirty space with other people.
It’s good to have a firm understanding of your world’s legal system before you dive too deep into the plot. Knowing the ins and outs of law could mean the difference between a reader thinking your world is believable or fake. Practice brainstorming ideas about how your kingdom deals with criminals and crimes, and then put it to paper to see the results. You could have a kingdom where criminals are brought to justice by assassins, or you could have a kingdom where criminals are captured and tried, just like in the real world.
It’s up to you, so make it creative!