What Is Law?
The law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways. It can be used to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, or to oppress minorities and opponents of an authoritarian regime.
In a state with a written constitution, the law may be codified in a written document known as a statute. In a state without a written constitution, the law is enacted through judicial decisions, executive orders, or other forms of legislative authority. The law is applied through the judicial branch of government in most countries, where judges resolve disputes and determine whether people charged with crimes are guilty or innocent. In a country with a common law legal system, judges’ decisions are considered law, on equal footing with statutes and regulations, and may be binding on lower courts under the doctrine of stare decisis.
Most laws include a set of procedural rules for adjudication, including the right to a trial by jury and the requirement that the parties be heard before a judge (see court procedure). Many areas of the law have additional specific procedures, such as contracts, employment, insurance, taxation, bankruptcy, and criminal law.
The term law can be used to describe a particular system of government, such as a democracy, constitutional republic, monarchy, or a military dictatorship. It can also refer to a system of legal principles, such as the rule of law, human rights, or religious law. The concept of law has been a subject of intense discussion and debate by philosophers and scholars, and numerous books containing diverse ideas have been written on the topic.
Some theorists have sought to define the law by its purpose: Roscoe Pound, for example, defined the law as “a means of social control.” Hans Kelsen, meanwhile, argued that the law is normative science that reflects the values and ideals of a society.
A key aspect of a law is that it must be enforceable, meaning that sanctions must be applied when the law is violated. It is important for the law to be clear and understandable, and to be enforceable by a government that is transparent and accountable to its citizens.
The guiding principles of a good legal system are the rule of law, the separation of powers, and checks on government power. A good legal system must ensure that all people are treated fairly, regardless of their wealth or social status, and that core human, procedural, and property rights are protected. It must also ensure that a democratic process exists for making and amending the law, so that it is responsive to changes in social needs and circumstances. It must also be stable and consistent. Finally, a good legal system must have mechanisms to prevent abuses of power and allow for peaceful transitions of government. These principles form the basis of the U.S. Constitution and other constitutional documents around the world.