What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that a society develops to control human behaviour and deal with disputes. It is an area of intense debate, with many books containing various ideas and definitions of the subject. A key question is the extent to which law incorporates morality. For example, utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham defined law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to which people have a habit of obedience”. On the other hand, natural lawyers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that law reflects innately moral and unchanging laws of nature.

A key distinction is between procedural and substantive law. Procedural law governs a citizen’s right to a fair trial or hearing, for instance. Substantive law covers rights, such as property or privacy. An essential feature of any legal system is that it is enforceable. However, the nature of this enforcement depends on the political landscape. For example, a government that is not subject to checks and balances on its power, such as a free press or independent judiciary, may fail to serve the principal functions of law: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving conflicts, and protecting liberties and rights.

An important dimension of the concept of law is its relationship with democracy and civil society. The notion that law serves to control human behaviour and ensure a stable society has led to calls for governments to be democratic in character and limit their power over citizens. In practice, this is a difficult task, and varies from nation to nation.

Law is often divided into specialised fields such as criminal, civil, commercial, labour, property and international law. Each of these areas contains a number of different sub-fields. For instance, labour law encompasses the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade unions and involves regulations governing the employment contract and right to strike. The study of property law includes the laws relating to real property (either movable or immovable) and personal property. It also deals with issues such as title deeds and property succession.

Another specialised field is constitutional law, which examines the scope of a constitution. The United States Constitution is a prime example of a constitution with broad provisions that enable federal law to cover a wide range of activities, such as the military, money (including taxes), foreign relations, tariffs and intellectual property. The study of constitutional law has become an increasingly important part of the discipline of public law since the rise of globalisation and the spread of multinational corporations. A related and developing discipline is the study of e-government, which involves the development of electronic systems for public administration. This is an important field of research for law, as it will enable a large number of procedures to be automated and the costs of legal services to be reduced. This will help to reduce the time that lawyers spend on routine tasks, and will free them up to focus more attention on the complex legal problems of modern life.

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