The Nature of Law


The law is a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with issues like crime, business agreements, and social relationships. The word law can also be used to describe the profession of lawyers or judges, and the study of systems of laws is called jurisprudence.

Law is a powerful force in modern societies, but the nature of law varies widely from nation to nation. For example, in nations with democratic governments, people can usually vote to change or replace the existing legal system. But in countries with authoritarian political structures, it can be difficult to achieve any kind of constitutional changes that would increase the democratic freedoms and rights of citizens.

In most countries, the basic function of law is to define and enforce the limits of power granted to the government by the people or by the constitution. It also provides protection for people from abuses by the government or other citizens. The laws that govern a community determine whether that community is free or oppressive, prosperous or impoverished, safe or dangerous.

A large part of the law is made up of statutes and rules developed by courts. The United States has a federal system of law that includes the constitution, statutes passed by Congress and signed into law by the President (or, in the case of a vetoed bill, the Governor). The Code of Federal Regulations is an official compilation and codification of all current regulations.

Besides statutes, most nations have a body of law known as common law, which is based on court cases. In most countries that have a common law tradition, the legislatures are not in the habit of creating detailed statutes on crimes, torts, contracts, or property, leaving the task of defining these matters mainly to the courts. In this way, courts develop law by interpreting the meaning of statutes and articulating rulings that can be used as precedents in future cases.

Many of these decisions are based on the notion of “natural justice” and the idea that people should be treated fairly and with respect. This principle is a fundamental underpinning of the law in most modern nations. The modern military, policing and bureaucratic systems pose special problems for this theory of law, however, as these power-wielding agencies can easily become corrupted and unaccountable. This is a problem that Max Weber and others attempted to address with theories of bureaucracy and the state. Other articles on this site that discuss the relationship of law to other institutions include constitution; ideology; and political party. Articles on the profession of law and a description of legal training are available in the articles on the Legal Profession, Legal Education, and Legal Ethics. For a discussion of the role of law in social justice, see Human Rights. This is a shortened version of an original article that was published on the Huffington Post. Copyright 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.