The Concept of Law


Law is a set of rules created by the state which forms a framework to ensure a peaceful society. If these rules are broken they can be enforced by mechanisms created by the state and sanctions imposed. Law influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways. A legal system may include a written constitution and the rights encoded within it; or a law can be based on custom and traditions, such as the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia. Other legal systems are based on a court of justice, or a body of laws created by judges through interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and Ijma (consensus). Law covers all aspects of human activity that require some form of regulation. It may involve property (civil law); contract, employment and criminal law; medical jurisprudence (medical law); air, maritime and aviation law; constitutional law; and family law.

The concept of a law is not easy to define, as differing ideologies have competing definitions of the word. John Austin, an advocate of utilitarian philosophy, defined law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to people as political subjects who have a habit of obedience.” The natural school of thought, influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, maintains that law reflects a moral order and is unchangeable.

A country’s legal system serves a number of purposes, including to keep the peace, preserve the status quo, protect minorities against majorities and promote social justice. The effectiveness of a law is dependent on the political landscape in a nation, which is different from place to place. An authoritarian government may keep the peace and the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities and people who challenge the established power structure. A democratic regime, on the other hand, may allow for social change without destroying the basic principles of a free society.

In a democracy, the constitution sets the limits on the powers of the government and the individuals who make up the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It also establishes the rule of law, a principle which holds that the law should be clear and accessible to all citizens. A stable, functional legal system requires an independent judiciary that is impartial and able to check the executive and legislative branches for abuses of power. It must also guarantee core human, procedural and property rights and provide for a transition of power that is secure. This is a difficult goal to achieve in any country, but is an essential component of a successful democracy. Whether a country is successful in implementing these values depends on its adherence to the rule of law and the degree to which its democracy is rooted in a culture of freedom and respect for others. The United States, for example, has a strong cultural tradition of civil liberty and a commitment to the equal protection of its citizens under the law. This is evidenced by its long history of civic participation, an active press and a robust public ombudsman office.