What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Law has a number of purposes, notably establishing standards, maintaining order and resolving disputes, but perhaps its most important role is to protect liberties and rights. In modern societies, the rule of law provides a framework that enables individuals to pursue their dreams and live without fear of injustice or oppression. The International Bar Association (IBA) defines the “Rule of Law” as a set of principles that include an independent and impartial judiciary; the presumption of innocence; the right to a fair trial; a reasonable and proportionate approach to punishment; and adherence to transparent processes accessible to all. It also ensures a strong and independent legal profession; strict protection of confidential communications between lawyers and clients; and equality of all before the law. In violation of the Rule of Law, arbitrary arrests; secret trials; torture or degrading treatment or punishment; intimidation or corruption in the electoral process; and laws that restrict freedom of speech or assembly are all violations of human rights that must be addressed by states.

The precise definition of law is a matter of ongoing debate, with some theories linking it to a moral code or natural laws. Others focus on the power and authority of a state to make and enforce laws. For example, utilitarian philosopher John Austin defined law as commands, backed by force or threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that law should be based on the “natural law,” or unchanging moral principles.

A country’s legal system may be based on a written constitution or an unwritten one; a legal framework that varies from nation to nation. Some countries use common law systems, which derive laws from judicial decisions, rather than through a legislative process; these are compiled into a legal manual known as case law. A few nations have civil law systems that derive laws from an exhaustive set of written codes.

The legal system of a country is often defined by the country’s political landscape and history. For example, some countries have a constitutional democracy, while others are authoritarian regimes. The power to make and enforce laws is a function of political power, with some countries possessing military might in addition to a powerful bureaucracy. In unstable or authoritarian countries, laws can be corrupted or distorted by those in power. Moreover, the legal systems of countries are often influenced by their economic and cultural backgrounds. For example, China’s legal system combines a traditional Confucian culture with Western-influenced laws and regulations. This is reflected in the laws of China regarding property, labour and criminal justice, among other things. Other nations have more distinctly religious legal traditions, such as Islamic Sharia and Jewish Halakha.