Law is a collection of rules created by the state which forms a framework to ensure a peaceful society and to protect people’s liberty and rights. It serves several purposes but the principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting property and liberties.
Law can be made by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or through judges’ precedent, forming common law jurisdictions. In addition, private individuals may create legal contracts that are legally binding. There are many areas of law, but three categories are presented here for convenience although the subjects intertwine and overlap. Labour law concerns the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade union, encompassing issues such as health and safety or a minimum wage. Family law covers marriage, divorce and the rights of children. In the field of civil law the laws governing property are important, such as ownership and inheritance. Commercial law is concerned with transactions between people, such as contracts and mortgages.
The law can shape politics, economics, history and society in various ways. It can be a means of controlling the behaviour of individuals and avoiding conflict, or it can serve more democratic functions such as preserving minorities against majorities or promoting social justice. Some legal systems are better at serving these functions than others. The nature of law varies from country to country, and the law can change as societies evolve.
Defining the nature of the law is challenging because it has to be descriptive and predictive but also normative and prescriptive. For example, the law cannot mandate behaviours which are unattainable or force people to do things which they can’t do. Similarly, the law cannot mandate behaviours which violate people’s rights and freedoms.
From a philosophical viewpoint, the law is a product of human society and can be seen as a product of the evolution of human consciousness. It is the result of conscious, often long-term effort to regulate and control human behaviour. The law can be influenced by religion, philosophy, literature and science, and has been described as the ‘social product of an evolutionary process’.
Hans Kelsen proposed the ‘pure theory of law’, which states that the law is a ‘normative science’. This argues that the law does not seek to describe what must occur, but simply defines certain rules that individuals must abide by. This view of the law is different to the natural school, which argues that the law is a description of the physical world and its forces. The legal system is a complex structure which governs all aspects of life. In addition to regulating criminal activity and civil litigation, it provides for a social security scheme, regulates commerce, protects the environment and manages a country’s military. It is a powerful instrument for shaping society in the direction of its own objectives. This is why the law is so difficult to define. In some cases, it is even a matter of opinion.