What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that form the framework for a peaceful society. It provides a way to resolve disputes and ensures that people, government and public officials carry out their duties. It has many purposes, including protecting property rights and punishing polluters. Law can be formulated by the state through legislative statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent (known as stare decisis) in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

Law has a long history and varies greatly between different nations. There is a continual struggle for law reform, to ensure that law serves the needs of all citizens and not just those in power. The development of laws is linked to the development of civilizations.

In ancient Babylonia, King Hammurabi established the Code of Hammurabi, which laid out the rules that were to be followed by everyone. The Code is the oldest known written law. It was chiseled into stone and posted in the marketplace. It was an early form of state control that included the punishment of offenders and the division of property.

A central question in the philosophy of law is whether or not the law incorporates morality. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that the primary function of law was to control behaviour through the threat of sanctions. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that law was based on a moral code that is universal and unchanging.

Law encompasses many areas of human activity, such as business law, international law, criminal law, constitutional law and family law. Law can be based on written legal documents such as statutes, treaties or constitutions; on custom and practice, such as the law of contract and the law of evidence; or on natural laws that are not documented but can be discerned through reason.

The rule of law is an idea that has been reshaped by such thinkers as Max Weber, a founder of sociology and the social sciences, who pointed out that modern military, policing and bureaucratic power extends beyond nation-states, giving rise to special problems for accountability that writers like Locke or Montesquieu could not have envisaged. It requires a system of law that is publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated; that allows for participation in decision-making and legal certainty; and that is based on core human rights norms and standards. In addition, it must be stable and dependable. This is not always easy to achieve, as a number of governments fail to satisfy these requirements. This is the basis for a number of political movements such as those for democracy, civil liberties and human rights.