The Concept of Law


Law is a wide-ranging subject that covers the social and political institutions that govern, oversee or regulate human behaviour. It also provides a rich source of scholarly inquiry into areas such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

Law can be broadly divided into three categories: criminal law, civil law and common law. Criminal law deals with conduct considered to be damaging to society and that may be punishable by imprisonment or fine. Civil law concerns the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations. And common law refers to a general body of rules that are derived from past court decisions that establish common legal principles across different jurisdictions.

These rules are enacted by government, and enforced through state institutions, such as the police and courts. They can be made by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, or established by the executive through decrees and regulations, or by judges through precedent. In common law jurisdictions, judicial decisions are binding on lower courts through the doctrine of stare decisis.

Many of these laws are rooted in religious precepts, such as the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law. Often, the implicit implication of religion is that it is unchangeable. These religiously-rooted laws then require human elaboration through interpretation, reasoning by analogy and consensus, and the development of jurisprudence.

In other jurisdictions, laws are rooted in cultural or community practices. These are often referred to as “civil” or “continental” systems of law and cover around 60% of the world. They are based on concepts, categories and rules largely influenced by Roman law, and may be supplemented or augmented by customary and local culture.

The nature and extent of the power to make and enforce law varies widely from nation to nation, and is a fundamental issue in many modern political conflicts. The rise of democratic government, the struggle for civil rights and increasing scrutiny of governmental powers by academics have all raised questions about how much autonomy, and how little accountability, is proper for state agents.

The concept of law reveals the complex and diverse ways in which societies organize themselves through mutual understanding, agreements and contracts. It also raises profound questions about justice and the distribution of goods and burdens in a society. These issues are at the heart of modern debates over democracy, freedom and globalization.