What is Law?

Law is a system of rules created by the state which regulates behaviour and defines rights. It has many functions, including establishing standards, maintaining order and resolving conflict, but the four main ones are imposing limits on power, punishing criminals, protecting property and defending liberties. It also shapes politics, economics and history and acts as a mediator of relations between people.

There are many different types of law, ranging from administrative and business to criminal, family and labour laws. For examples, administrative law involves the regulations of an organisation; business law covers the legal framework for commercial transactions and contracts; criminal law is concerned with defending the community against crimes like murder and theft; and family law covers the rights of children, including custody and maintenance.

In addition, there is international law, which deals with the relationships between nations and their citizens; constitutional law, which examines how the executive, legislative and judicial powers are structured in a nation-state; and human rights law, which concerns the protection of the civil and political liberties of individuals against the state. Many countries have a written constitution which codifies these principles; others do not, but in any case the legal landscape varies greatly from one country to another.

The word ‘law’ is used in the sense of imposition by a sovereign authority, and implies an obligation of obedience on the part of those subject to that authority. In the context of a democracy, this is usually enforced through parliamentary procedures: the sponsoring of a bill, its assignment to committee and its debate and voting in the House of Commons, before it moves on to the Senate (if released). It may then be amended by a conference committee made up of members from both houses, and then must pass through the Senate again, with a simple majority in favour, to become law. In less stable societies, the creation and enforcement of law is often a matter of military power or the aspirations of the political class. This can lead to revolutions and uprisings against existing political-legal authority. Even in democratic countries, the legal system is influenced by the culture, history and values of the society in which it operates and the constitution or bill of rights that may be encoded within it. In any case, there are always tensions between the ‘rule of law’ and human liberty.