The Definition of Law

Law is the collection of rules a society recognises as regulating the actions and relations of its members. This collection of legal norms may encompass everything from criminal laws to judicial decisions and government regulations. The practice of law can also refer to the profession of lawyers and judges, the academic discipline of law, or specific areas of the legal system such as contracts or human rights.

Laws define social and ethical standards, enforce property rights, provide for the peaceful resolution of disputes, and establish the conditions under which war and peace are conducted. They are a fundamental aspect of any state, enabling its citizens to live in a safe and stable environment.

The question of how best to define law has long been debated. John Austin’s utilitarian definition of law cites it as “commands, backed by threat of sanction, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience”. The natural school, led by Jacques Rousseau, argued that the law is rooted in moral and unchangeable principles of nature.

In modern states, the law is a complex set of practices and institutions. It includes administrative, civil, and common law; constitutional, family, and criminal laws; and laws governing international affairs.

The law is also comprised of individual decisions made by judges and arbitrators, known as case law. This case law is often based on precedent, the principle that decisions by lower courts should be followed by higher courts, and that similar cases should reach similar results. This principle, along with parliamentary control over the judiciary, makes for an effective legal system.