The Basics of Law


Law is the system of rules and procedures by which a government or group sets and enforces limits on human behavior. It is the basis for enforceable contracts, property rights, and criminal, civil and administrative justice. The nature of law differs from nation to nation. Some legal systems are more repressive, whereas others are more democratic and liberal. The most important function of law is to keep the peace, but it also protects minorities against majorities, maintains the status quo, and provides for orderly social change. It serves these purposes most effectively when the people or groups that make and enforce it have some degree of political power. Governments that do not serve these functions tend to fail. Rebellions against oppressive or authoritarian laws are a familiar feature of history.

The most controversial question about law involves the method of interpretation. There are many ways to get from input – the text of the law or constitution or statute – to output – its meaning. A related debate concerns which factors should be given greater weight in legal interpretation. For example, some theorists give primacy to the intentions of the lawmakers (the legislature in the case of statutory law, or the framers or ratifiers of a constitutional law). Other theorists take the opposite position – that legal interpretation is a pure exercise in linguistic analysis, and the only legitimate interpretive considerations are those provided by the text itself.

In a common law system, whose historical exemplar is England, judicial decisions (called “case law”) are one of the most important sources of legal authority. These judgments set precedent that is in effect (though not formally) binding on subsequent courts, as they decide other cases of similar facts. In contrast, some Continental countries have codified laws that are more or less prescriptive.

Other topics in law include labour law, which addresses the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union; tort law, which covers civil wrongs; and criminal law, which deals with offenses against public order. There is also a body of law called administrative law, which relates to the procedures by which government agencies create and enforce rules.

The most common sources of legal authority are statutory law, regulatory law and case law. Statutory law are codes enacted by legislative bodies, regulatory law are guidelines established by executive agencies based on statutes, and case law are decisions made in ongoing adjudication. The latter is particularly significant in the United States, where court decisions can be overturned by higher courts if they do not follow established precedent.

In addition, there are special forms of law for particular types of transactions, such as contracts, taxation, immigration, insurance and banking. Finally, there is canon law, which concerns the judicial canons that guide religious courts. Articles on legal education and the legal profession also pertain to the nature of law. For articles on the relationship of law to politics, see political structure; ideology; and political party.