What is Law?


Law is the binding rules of conduct or action that the majority of a society agrees to follow. It is enforced through a controlling authority. It serves four main purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

It is a complex subject that is at the intersection of philosophy, history, economics and social science. Moreover, it is the subject of many legal debates that touch on issues such as equality and fairness, terrorism and human rights.

In general, Law is a body of norms promulgated as public knowledge to guide behaviour and prevent social injustice. This is accomplished through a system of institutions that oversee the administration of justice, protect individuals from abuses of private and public power, ensure the transparency of business transactions and the integrity of legal procedures. This is known as the rule of law and it involves the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the accountability of government officials and the legitimacy of legal decisions.

The nature of the law varies from nation to nation. A dictatorial regime might keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may oppress minorities or other political opponents (as in Burma or Zimbabwe). Similarly, democratic law might promote equality and freedom of speech and assembly, yet may be inefficient in managing the economy or settling disputes.

Legal systems generally fall into two broad categories: civil law jurisdictions, where a legislative body codifies and consolidates laws; and common law countries, where judge-made precedent is accepted as binding law. In addition, religious laws play a role in some societies, such as Islamic Sharia.

Law is a social construct that is not fully understood. Its nature is partly a function of the human capacity to make predictions about the future. A rational decision is one that combines an individual’s unique experience, expectations and beliefs with the knowledge and information available to them.

It is this process of predicting the intersection of an individual’s own narrative with the external reality that makes up the world around them that constitutes a sense of law. This is the basis of Holmes’ definition of law, a prediction that consists of “a set of probabilities as to the occurrence of certain events. As experience flows, a participant’s probability estimates are adjusted and the law is redefined. As a consequence, the law is never complete or perfect” (Holmes, 1905: 29). This explains why law can be considered to be both epistemically valid and self-validating.