The Definition of Law

Law is a set of rules that creates a framework to ensure a peaceful society. When the laws are breached, sanctions can be imposed on those responsible. A precise definition is difficult as legal systems differ and individuals have different ideas about what the law should be.

The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, and also serves as a mediator between people. It has a profound influence on human life, a fact that was acknowledged by the founders of the United States when they incorporated the Constitution into the legal system.

Law includes all of the rules, ordinances and decisions that are recognized as binding upon citizens in a given jurisdiction. There are four main purposes of the law: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting people’s liberties and rights.

Traditionally, the definition of law has been an academic pursuit that draws on philosophy and history, rather than the sciences. The philosophy of law is concerned with the nature of laws, their justification and the process of making them. The history of law is the story of the evolution of legal systems, influenced by the needs of a changing society and the prevalent moral and political theories. Inevitably, the ‘rules of law’ reflect these influences and cannot be reduced to the logical axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.

From the time of ancient Greek philosophy, philosophers have struggled to define the concept of law. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham suggested that the law was “commands, backed by the threat of sanction, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others argued that the law reflected innate moral laws that are unchanging.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, judges, scholars and writers compiled large collections of legal maxims, which were short statements of principles that informed judicial decision making. These ‘rules of law’ were known as the common law. Until the 19th century, a lawsuit had to be carefully drafted to meet myriad technical requirements, including correctly slotting the case into one of a very limited number of legal pigeonholes (debt, detinue, covenant, special assumpsit, general assumpsit, trespass, trover and replevin).

The practice of law today encompasses a vast range of fields. Criminal law entails punishment for crimes, civil rights include the right to freedom from discrimination, and contracts regulate exchanges of goods, services, money or property. Family law involves marriage and divorce proceedings, and rights of children and property after separation. Commercial law concerns business and finance, while biolaw examines the intersection of law with the biosciences.

The laws of a jurisdiction are embodied in its constitution, statutes and judicial decisions. In a common law system, the judgments of higher courts bind lower court adjudicators, in a doctrine called stare decisis. In contrast, the decisions of higher courts in a civil law system are non-binding on the lower courts and may only be persuasive authority. The laws of a jurisdiction can be further complicated by international treaties and conventions that have been adopted.