The Nature of Law


Law is a body of rules that regulates behavior in the context of an organized community and enforced by a controlling authority through penalties. A central purpose of law is to provide order and protection against disorder, violence and exploitation. The legal system has a significant impact on politics, economics, history and society. The nature of law is a perennial source of debate and controversy. The study of law encompasses many diverse disciplines and fields of inquiry including ethics, philosophy, sociology, history and anthropology.

John Austin defines law as the aggregate of commandments and principles that the ruling power in an organized jural society imposes upon members of that society. Austin emphasized the role of law in the political realm, and in particular its role in establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties.

In modern societies, the creation and enforcement of law is a complex affair that involves a variety of institutions and actors. These include courts, police and military forces, legislatures, prosecutors and judges. There is a general belief that the rule of law is essential to the stability and prosperity of human society. The principle of the rule of law posits that all citizens are equal and subject to publicly disclosed laws and processes, regardless of their status in society, and that all people should be able to anticipate what their actions will mean legally.

Different societies develop differing approaches to the definition of law. Some, such as the United States, employ a common law system where judges’ decisions are acknowledged as “law” on an equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. In this system, a judge’s decision in a case will bind future cases in that jurisdiction, under the doctrine of stare decisis. This contrasts with civil law systems where courts rely on codes that explicitly specify how judges should decide cases.

Other definitions of law focus on the specific activities and structures that are part of the legal system. Labour law, for example, addresses the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union, and includes regulation of wages and conditions of employment. Administrative law, meanwhile, deals with the way in which government agencies make and enforce their policies and regulations.

Other legal fields include environmental law, which relates to the protection of natural resources; banking law, which establishes minimum capital requirements for banks and rules on investment; criminal law, which concerns prosecuting criminal offenses and civil rights law, which covers such matters as the right to privacy. The law also relates to social issues, such as family law, which includes marriage and divorce proceedings, and estates law, which deals with property rights and inheritance. The law also has a strong connection to science and technology; see biolaw. For further discussion of the role of the legal system, see law and society; political system; state; constitution; and government.