The Meaning of Law

Law is the set of rules that creates a framework to ensure a peaceful society. It sets out the rights and responsibilities of people and defines the consequences of breaching them. It can be enforced by mechanisms created by the state and sanctions imposed. It covers a wide range of topics, from contracts and property to censorship and military service. Some laws apply to all of a country’s population, others only to specific groups. The most common areas of law include civil, criminal and administrative law.

The meaning of law has been debated throughout history, but its purpose is often described as establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. It also serves the social interest by preventing exploitation and deprivation.

In modern times, the role of law is much wider than at any time in history. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many different ways and acts as a mediator of relations between people. For example, laws can limit freedom of speech, prevent discrimination, regulate financial transactions and provide protection to vulnerable people. They can also shape economic and commercial activity by setting minimum standards, for instance in banking and financial regulation or defining the terms of contracts. They can even influence the management of public services, for example water, electricity and gas supply are regulated industries that are bound by laws.

One of the earliest definitions of law was from the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who said: ‘Law is the aggregate of commands, backed by threat of sanction from a sovereign, to which men as a species have a natural habit of obedience’. Utilitarian theories dominated thinking about law until the 20th century, when Max Weber and others reshaped understanding of the extension of state power to cover areas that were previously considered private or community affairs.

Some legal systems are secular, while others are religious or based on tradition. For example, the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia are sources of detailed law, and their elaboration by human jurisprudence, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent has produced comprehensive legal systems. Other religions have also had a significant impact on law, for example through Christian canon and Muslim fiqh.

Other legal systems are based on custom, or civil law, which is found in around 60% of the world’s countries. These are largely based on concepts, categories and rules derived from Roman law, with additional influence from local culture and custom. These tend to have more emphasis on personal freedom and are usually supplemented by canon law. However, these are not a single body of law, as legal systems are constantly changing and evolving. They are influenced by economic interests, social values and political philosophy, and conflicting pulls of philosophy, practice and technique struggle for recognition. Legal techniques are continually being developed, and lawyers are a vital component of these processes. The law also influences the development of language and reflects people’s perception of what is right and wrong.