Law is the body of rules a society develops to govern crime and business agreements, ensure social relationships are healthy and protect human rights. It also shapes politics, history and culture in a number of different ways. The practice of law is the profession that enables people to engage in this process and it has distinct professional status as well as a specific legal form.
The concept of law has many facets and a precise definition is difficult. Some of the main concepts are:
A principle that describes how things behave or what must happen under certain conditions: the law of gravity; the laws of motion; the law of supply and demand. Laws are not necessarily objective; they can be based on beliefs, ideas and values as well as experience.
Rules that regulate the actions of a person or group: a law prohibiting drunk driving. Laws may be created and enforced by individuals or by a government or other authority. They may be written, oral or a combination of both. They may be a code of behaviour, a series of principles or a set of rules. In some countries laws are formally codified. In others, they are judge-made precedents.
Laws are often seen as binding on everyone, including the rulers and the ruled. This view has given rise to the phrase ‘rule of law’ and there is an emphasis on fairness and equality in this system. However, the extension of state power in modern societies (e.g. in military and policing activities) presents special problems of accountability that earlier writers such as Locke and Montesquieu could not foresee.
Despite the complexity of the concept of law, some people have attempted to develop a clear definition. For example, Sir William Blackstone distinguished between natural law, revealed law and municipal or civil law. His idea was that the common law, developed through the judgments of judges, constituted the first and most fundamental type of law; it was supreme over other types of law.
Other approaches to law focus on its role as a mediator of relations between individuals or groups. In a sense, this role is similar to the function of religion in some societies. Its aim is to ensure that human rights are respected and that social relationships are healthy and productive. Other goals are to protect property and the environment, to settle disputes, to keep society orderly and to encourage economic development. For example, if two people claim the same piece of land, the courts can decide who owns it by following the law. This prevents the two parties from fighting. In addition, the law can make sure that the police and other public officials are held to account if they do not carry out their duties properly. The law also enables governments to respect the independence of citizens. This is known as a constitutional state. It is important for a country to have a well-developed legal system in order to have an effective and democratic society.