The Sources of Law


The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. The law defines what is permitted and forbidden, and governs the relationships between people. The law provides a way to settle disputes and prevents people from hurting or killing each other. It also helps to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to get what they need in life, whether it is food, water or housing.

Laws are made by government, but they also exist in other kinds of organisations and institutions. For example, laws can be created by companies that have been set up to manage particular types of things. Such laws can regulate how these businesses operate, ensuring that they provide a good service to customers or avoid harming the environment. There are even laws that apply to whole countries or groups of people.

There are two main categories of law: civil and criminal. Civil law covers matters such as torts (when someone is harmed, for example in an automobile accident or by defamation) and contracts. It also covers property law, such as the rules on who owns land or other goods. Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with crimes committed against a state or its citizens.

In the United States, the law is based on the common law system. Under this system, a judge or barrister can be sure that if another case comes before them that they will be able to find the same law on which to base their decision. This is called the “doctrine of precedent” and means that decisions in previous cases have an effect on later ones, unless overturned. This is the opposite of a system like that used in Europe, where laws are made by Parliament or by executive regulation.

The earliest sources of legal authority were custom and edicts issued by governments, but nowadays most societies use a mix of sources. These include statutes, which are passed by Parliament or a similar body, and judgments made by judges. Judgments that are repeated by judges are compiled into what is known as case law. Other sources of law are religious codes, such as the Jewish Halakhah or Islamic Shariah, and Christian canon law. In some countries, such as India, the law is influenced by ancient Hindu jurisprudence. Other sources of law may be found in natural science, such as the laws of gravity and thermodynamics, or in social sciences, such as the laws of supply and demand in economics. For more information, see article on legal systems; law in the United States; the judicial process; and lawyers, barristers and advocates. Also see articles on the legal profession, legal education and legal ethics.