What is Law?


Law is a set of rules or norms that governs the behavior of individuals and communities. It provides a framework for order, justice and stability in society. In modern societies law is often enforced through a legal system comprising courts, legislatures and executive agencies. Law is also the subject of a vast number of academic disciplines, from legal history and philosophy to economic analysis and sociology.

A broad definition of law can include any set of rules that a society considers binding: it can range from laws governing contracts to the rules of fair play in sports to laws governing traffic regulations and criminal procedure. However, the most common concept of law is a formal system of rules that a government or other authority imposes on its citizens to regulate their activities and protect their rights. In this sense, a legal system is only as good as the rules that it lays down and the manner in which they are applied.

There are two main types of law: natural and positive. Natural law, sometimes referred to as natural jurisprudence, is the set of principles and beliefs that define the human condition and guide a society’s ethical behaviour. It is a fundamental source of morality and forms the basis for all human rights legislation. The prevailing principle is that human beings should conduct themselves in a way which is consistent with their nature and the needs of society.

The other type of law is positive law, which consists of the rules and regulations that are imposed by a state or other political authority to govern its citizens. These are usually codified in a constitution or statute and include a wide range of activities such as commercial law, taxation law, family law, labour laws, intellectual property laws and environmental laws. The source of positive law is a combination of legislation and custom (such as the Babylonian Codex Hammurabi). Modern civil laws rely on a combination of legislative codes, case law and legal maxims compiled into books of precedent called “brocards”.

In addition to the above, some religions have specific laws derived from religious precepts. These include Jewish Halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law.

There are several key issues that are central to the understanding of law, including its status as a social phenomenon, its role in promoting and protecting human rights, its relationship with other parts of the society and its impact on economic development. The legal system is not a perfect institution, but it can be improved by the adoption of international standards such as the rule of law which entails laws that are clear, publicly promulgated, consistently enforced and independently adjudicated and that guarantee the rights of all individuals and entities to equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary punishment or discrimination, accountability in law enforcement and judicial systems, separation of powers, participation in decision making, legal certainty and transparency and the avoidance of arbitrariness. For more on these standards see the Oxford Reference article on the Rule of Law.

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