What is Law?


Law is a framework in which social, economic and political decisions are made. It governs how we interact with each other, with ourselves and with nature. From a methodological viewpoint it is unique among the disciplines, as it does not comprise empirical statements (as in the laws of gravity) or normative ones (as in the law of supply and demand).

It shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways. The law may be formulated as laws, statutes, rules, regulations or codes. The law may be based on common law, civil law or religious laws. It may be enforceable by courts, tribunals or government agencies. It may cover a wide range of topics, including property, taxation, criminal, labour and corporate laws. Its principles include supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in its application and legal certainty.

The judicial branch of government is responsible for interpreting the law and imposing it. This may be done through a court of law or a judge, magistrate or administrator. The law is a complex area of study. It is the subject of many books, journals and scholarly articles. It is also the topic of debates and discussions in the public domain, for example over whether a law should be passed or not, or over the judging class itself (whether judges should be above the politics of their day).

From a philosophical standpoint it has deep roots in religion, metaphysics and social science. It is a system of rules created and enforced by the state for the purpose of controlling human behaviour. It is also the subject of debates over its role in the protection of human rights and the promotion of justice, peace and goodwill.

Laws are created and enforced to meet a variety of needs in societies. They can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, protect minorities from majorities and individuals from oppression, ensure that social change is orderly, promote social justice and provide for the distribution of goods and burdens in society. Some legal systems are better at meeting these needs than others.

There is a general distinction between “civil” and “common” law systems. In common law systems, the judicial rulings are recognised as laws along with legislative statutes and executive regulations. In civil law systems, the legislation is codified and consolidated into small books called legal codes. Judgments of the higher courts are binding on lower courts, in the name of “stare decisis”. The development of the law of nations and the growth of international trade influenced the formation of civil laws that are now found throughout the world. These are a mix of Roman law, canon law and local customs. These laws are now progressively converging with common law. This process is referred to as legal globalisation. These changes are taking place at an unprecedented rate. They are transforming the way people live, work and play across the globe. They are also changing the way we think about law and the role it should play in our lives.