The Concept of Law


Law, in the broadest sense, is the system of rules that a community recognizes as regulating its members’ activities. It encompasses the various legal disciplines, from administrative law and constitutional law to criminal and family law. The study of law also includes the philosophy and history of laws, as well as the development and structure of different legal systems.

Laws are generally derived from precedent and legislative statutes. However, they may also be created de novo, as a result of judicial decisions. The latter is a particularly important source of law in common law jurisdictions, where the “doctrine of stare decisis” (Latin for “to stand by decisions”) binds lower courts to follow the rulings of higher ones. The judicial system therefore acts as a check on the power of legislatures and executive agencies.

A fundamental question regarding law is what it is that makes a particular decision or set of decisions legally valid. This issue is not to be confused with the question of whether or not a particular decision has a right or wrong outcome, but rather whether it meets certain criteria, such as consistency and reasonableness. Some scholars argue that the most basic criterion is a recognition of an existing consensus about what the law should be. Others suggest that the criterion is the more objectively sound one of a recognition of the need to do what is fair or just.

The concept of law has been shaped by political philosophy, social needs and concerns and legal technique. For example, Max Weber reshaped thinking about the extension of law. More recently, the role of modern military, policing and bureaucratic power in the lives of ordinary citizens has posed new challenges for the legal tradition that Locke and Montesquieu laid the foundation for.

The law is the basis for civil society, and provides an underlying framework for relations between people, as well as between nations. It enables societies to function in many ways, from the protection of individual rights and freedoms to the regulation of commercial and business transactions. It can also be a tool of control, providing a means to balance competing interests and impose restraints on behavior in general or in specific situations. The law is the fundamental framework of a democracy and a market economy. It provides the foundation for trust and confidence between individuals and between nations. This is reflected in the fact that most countries are parties to international treaties and organizations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the European Union. A wide range of issues is addressed in articles covering: the legal profession; legal education; legal ethics; and the law of war. The relationship of law to political structures is examined in articles such as constitution; ideology; and political system. Other articles cover the law of religion; censorship; and crime and punishment. The concept of law is also treated in the context of human rights, land reform and social service.