The Definition of Law


Law is the system of rules that a government or society creates and enforces to govern its members. It is an area of study that encompasses many areas of human activity, including the study of a constitution; politics and power; social justice and the environment; business; economics; history; and culture. The precise definition of law is subject to debate, but generally it refers to a body of rules established by the community and enforced by a controlling authority.

Law can be applied in a wide variety of ways to control behaviour and to influence the direction of society, with different laws applying in each case depending on the circumstances. The law may be written or unwritten, and it can regulate or prohibit a range of activities. It can also be used to reward or punish individuals and groups for their actions, and to impose restrictions on the freedom of movement of people and goods.

The law can serve a number of different purposes, from keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo to protecting minorities against majorities or promoting social change. However, the impact of the law can be distorted by different political structures. For example, an authoritarian government might keep the peace and maintain stability but it can be oppressive to minorities or political opponents (as in Burma under Saddam Hussein). A democratic government, on the other hand, is likely to promote the interests of the majority while ensuring the rights of minorities are respected.

A number of philosophers have contributed to the definition of law, with Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian definition being one of the most influential. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Austin, have argued that law incorporates morality.

Legal systems vary around the world, and they have been influenced by a variety of factors, including historical, cultural, economic and geographic influences. Legal systems can be divided into constitutional, civil and common law. A constitutional law combines a written or unwritten document with a series of principles that define the power and functions of a country’s government, such as its judicial system. A civil law system applies a set of laws that are broadly defined, and its courts interpret the meaning of these laws in individual cases.

In some countries, laws are enacted by legislatures and are interpreted by courts. In other countries, legislation is less detailed and judicial decisions are binding on lower courts, so that similar cases reach the same results. This is called the doctrine of precedent or stare decisis. The law can also be shaped by the legal profession and legal education. The law is a complex and contested area of study, with the precise nature of the concept being debated by philosophers and politicians alike.