What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with such issues as crime, business agreements and social relationships. Laws can be formal or informal, and can cover a wide variety of topics, from the right to a speedy trial to a requirement that one not use profanity in public places. Laws can be made by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by executive action, resulting in decrees; or, as in many common law jurisdictions, by judicial decision or precedent. A legal system can also be influenced by the constitution of a country or state, as well as by international conventions and treaties.

There are various views of what constitutes a law, and it can be difficult to give a precise definition. However, most people agree that a law is something that must be obeyed, and that it applies to everyone equally. For example, your parents’ house rules might be described as laws if you must follow them or face consequences. However, this is not quite the same as a legal law, which has enforced consequences and penalties (such as imprisonment).

It is generally agreed that the purpose of a law is to set standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect liberties and rights. These functions are achieved by a combination of different elements, including the principles of a constitution, written or tacit; the role of the executive, whose power is limited by the constitution and laws; checks on the power of the legislature and courts; and the rules of procedure established by the court and judges.

Another approach to the meaning of a law is legal positivism, which asserts that law is nothing more than the body of rules established by a sovereign, which can be enforced by the judicial system. Some scholars, however, have argued that this view is too narrow and that at least some laws seem to reflect a moral stance.

For example, the prohibition on insider trading reflects a belief in fairness, and the principle of due process in the courts implies a concern for basic human decency. Other scholars have argued that laws should be seen as being a kind of social contract, which binds all members of society.

Finally, Hans Kelsen developed the pure theory of law, which states that the function of law is to satisfy social wants through coercive methods. The role of the state is to impose this contract on all citizens and ensure that it is adhered to, regardless of their wealth or status. This view has gained popularity and is a key aspect of modern legal systems. It has been criticised, however, for failing to address concerns about the legitimacy of the state as a rule-maker. This has led to an alternative approach, called the rule of law, which advocates a more democratic and less authoritarian form of the legal system.