What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that govern human behavior and are enforced by social or governmental institutions. It can encompass anything from a statute that defines property rights to the regulations of a sports competition. It serves several purposes in society: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Law is not a single entity but an amalgam of many things including legislation, constitutions, treaties, and customary and common law.

The precise nature of law is a subject of long-standing debate, but most theories of it share some core features. They include the idea that laws are enforceable by a social or governmental authority, and that they must be formulated and promulgated in a way that ensures their application is fair, transparent, and independent. They also include the idea that laws are intended to guide behaviour, and that they cannot do so if they are secret or applied selectively.

Another feature of law is that it should be relatively stable in its application, and available as public knowledge. This requirement is reflected in the longstanding constitutional antipathy to bills of attainder. It is also embodied in Fuller’s 1964 formulation of what he called the ‘inner morality of law’-principles that are designed to make law look “open, relatively stable, prospective, clear, and practicable”. H.L.A. Hart questioned whether these were indeed moral principles, but they did appear to provide recipes for producing law that would satisfy legalistic concerns about clarity and predictability.

In addition to these formal requirements, the notion of law includes the idea that it must be applied in a way that respects the dignity of people. It is a notion that has been linked with the idea of natural law, which holds that humans are born with a set of inherited rules that distinguish the ‘rights’ from the ‘wrongs’ in life.

Finally, there is a continuing debate about the relation between the Rule of Law and the machinery of governance. Hayek has argued that the principle of the Rule of Law is incompatible with a system of legislation that depends on the deliberate control of powerful officials; but others, such as Rawls, have stressed that the distinction between the Rule of Law and legislative discretion is one of degree rather than of kind, and that it may be possible to have both a democracy and a bureaucracy.

In practice, the operation of the law is governed by numerous different branches. Contract law regulates people’s agreements to exchange goods or services; employment law sets out workers’ rights and obligations; criminal law deals with offenses against the state; and property law establishes people’s rights and responsibilities toward tangible objects, such as land and buildings; and intangible objects, such as bank accounts and shares of stock. These branches of the law are enforced by numerous governmental agencies, such as courts, police departments, and regulatory bodies. In addition, there are a number of professional occupations that specialise in law, such as attorneys, judges, and barristers.