What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that are enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is the subject of longstanding debate, but it generally involves a set of principles such as supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and transparency.

Despite the difficulty of empirically verifying the contents of law, its existence is widely accepted by all societies. Its fundamental nature, however, remains elusive because law is a concept of human choice and action that is shaped by the interactions between people. In other words, law is a human construct that is only as valid as the assumptions and predictions of the participants who make it up.

As a result, it is impossible to separate an individual’s tale of the law from the community narrative about the law and thus it is important to examine the differences between an individuals story and the codified version of the law held by a society. The difference between these two narratives is the ‘law’ as it applies to that particular individual, and the deviation between an individuals tale and the codified story reflects how binding the individual’s law is.

In addition, laws can be categorised according to their purpose. For example, a government’s purpose may be to keep the peace and maintain the status quo; preserve individual rights; provide for orderly social change; or promote justice and civilisation. These different purposes create different laws that are enforceable in diverse cultures and communities around the world.

The main types of law are civil, common and criminal law, though there are many sub-categories of each. Civil law includes the jurisprudence that governs the relationship between private and public organisations, such as contract law, property law, employment law, land law and tax law. It also covers the rules governing a person’s right to due process in court proceedings, i.e. the right to a trial and hearing.

Civil law is practiced in the majority of countries worldwide today. Its source is a combination of legislation-especially statutes passed by government-and custom. Codifications of Roman law have had an important influence on modern civil law systems. In mixed jurisdictions, such as those in Africa that were once colonised by European nations, civil law is blended with other traditions such as common law and Islamic law. Criminal law and evidence law are also examples of civil law subjects that incorporate aspects of common law and other systems. These two subjects are governed by rules set out in legislation and by precedent (the principle that previous case decisions must be followed).