The Nature of Law and Its Relationship to Society

Law is a system of rules and principles that guides human interactions and behaviour. The laws of a community establish a framework for the way people should interact with each other and with their natural environment. They serve four purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

The concept of law has many different aspects and a variety of interpretations. It is impossible to verify the content of law empirically, but it is generally accepted that it comprises a set of precepts that are binding on human beings. These precepts are based on the shape of the physical world and its limitations. They cannot, for example, mandate behaviours that are beyond the limits of the human mind or require humans to do things which are inhumane.

The law is an integral part of the social fabric, regulating everything from interpersonal relationships to national political institutions. It is therefore difficult to discuss any aspect of it without considering the context in which it occurs. This article examines the nature of law and its relationship to society in general, and it includes a discussion of the role of politics, government, legal profession, education and ethics in the development of the law.

Legal topics can be categorized in three broad areas, though many subjects intertwine and overlap. Labour law, for instance, deals with the tripartite industrial relationship between employee, employer and trade unions and concerns issues such as working conditions and minimum wage. Criminal and civil procedure concern the rules that courts must follow as they process cases through a trial or appeal. Evidence law involves which materials are admissible in court and the procedures that judges must follow when deciding cases.

Law varies from culture to culture and from period to period. For example, Roman law was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy but developed into a very sophisticated system of detailed rules. After the fall of Rome, these were replaced by custom and case law, but during the Middle Ages a body of Latin legal maxims was compiled to provide guidance.

In modern times, there is a growing recognition that the law must be adapted to changes in society. The rise of terrorism, for example, poses special challenges that previous generations did not face. Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking on the extension of state power, whilst the rise of civil society raises questions of accountability that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have foreseen.

The legal field is also extremely diverse, and it is difficult to define the term ‘law’. Nevertheless, the main topics of interest include: