What is Law?

Law is the set of rules imposed on society by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Its principal purposes are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Its instruments are statutes, regulations, judicial decisions, executive orders and court proceedings. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, arbitration agreements and alternative methods of dispute resolution that are not court litigation.

The nature of the law varies from place to place, and is determined by political and social factors. The political landscape varies considerably between nation-states, as do the forms of government that exist. A number of recurring themes are prominent in legal debates: a concern with the limits of state power; an emphasis on the distinction between the law and mere suggestions or good advice; the role of morality as part of the law; the difference between natural laws and human laws; the extent to which law is coercive and the extent to which it serves a particular social function; and the nature of political authority.

A large proportion of legal articles are concerned with particular areas of law, such as property, criminal or family law. The language used in these articles is often more technical and may take a position on controversial changes to legislation.

In these articles, the author will examine a particular piece of legislation or institution and will identify its strengths and weaknesses. The article will then propose an alternative solution to the problem and argue why it is superior. The aim of this type of article is to fill a gap in literature by addressing an area that has been neglected or misunderstood.

In the last century, there has been much debate over the extent to which the law incorporates morality. Bentham’s utilitarian theory of the law, which defined it as commands backed by threats of sanctions from a sovereign, was widely accepted until it was challenged in the 20th century by writers such as Aquinas and Rousseau who claimed that the law was based on innate, moral laws of nature. More recently, Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking about the social roots of law and the extent to which it is legitimately coercive. Nevertheless, many writers have argued that the principal functions of the law are still those identified by Locke and Montesquieu: that it is a means of social control and that people should obey it because they are naturally inclined to do so. This understanding of the law is reflected in modern political and legal theory. It is also a key factor in ensuring that government officials and agencies are held accountable to the law by those they govern. Accountability is facilitated by law that is clear, publicized, stable and enforced equally, as well as by processes for justice that are accessible, fair and impartial. It also requires transparency and participation in decision-making. All of these factors are considered by legal scholars to be essential elements of a just society.