What Is Law?


Law is the body of rules that a state or community enforces to regulate people’s behaviour and protect their rights. It can be enforced by a state through the legislative process producing statutes, or by executive decrees and regulations, or it may be made and enforced by judges through their decisions in “common law” jurisdictions where case law provides precedent that can bind subsequent cases. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and other arrangements that have legal force in law.

Legal systems are designed for various purposes: they can keep the peace and maintain social stability, preserve people’s property, ensure fair treatment of minorities against majorities, or promote political change by allowing for ordered constitutional evolution. Different systems serve these goals better than others: for example, a government ruled by an autocratic leader may keep the peace but may oppress minorities and its opponents, while a democracy may promote fairness but is not able to preserve individual property or ensure orderly social change.

The concept of the Rule of Law is one of the most influential ideals in political philosophy. It envisages that laws are clear and prospective, promulgated well in advance of their application, and cannot be altered or withdrawn without the involvement of all stakeholders. This view of law has shaped political thinking for millennia and is still an important part of the modern world. However, the reality of the way laws are made and applied today is much more complex than this simplified picture.

As is often emphasized, law depends on humans and the ways they think. Therefore it is impossible to empirically verify whether a particular set of rules comprises precepts of such and such import. Moreover, it is impossible to know whether the law should exist at all, as it would have no meaning or value without people interpreting and applying it.

Law also depends on the shape of the physical world and the limitations it imposes. Inevitably it is possible to draft laws that mandate behaviours which are unattainable or require them to do things that they can’t do. This is why the framers of the Constitution created a framework for governance that prevents any single person from becoming a monarch, or having power over other people.

In modern society the law is shaped in a variety of ways by legislation, statutes and regulations, but it also relies on a wide range of other sources. These include a constitution, which sets out the limits of law, and a set of principles that must be borne in mind when legislating, and case law, where the judge’s decision is influenced by past decisions. The influence of the past is not necessarily a good thing, as judge’s decisions have to be applied to new situations and must take into account the uniqueness of those situations. Modern legal pragmatists tend to place more faith in the insight of judges into new situations than on an ad hoc application of existing rules or strained analogies with past decisions.