What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that provides a framework to ensure a peaceful society and imposes sanctions on those who break the law. It is difficult to give a definitive definition of law because there are so many different views of it. However, most views of law focus on its political role. For example, Bentham’s utilitarian theories emphasise that law is a series of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign, to which people have a habit of obedience. Conversely, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of natural law emphasised the moral and unchanging laws of nature that are innate in human beings.

In modern societies, the extension of state power is a key issue for understanding law. The responsibilities of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government are split to ensure that no single person can dominate state power. This is commonly referred to as the separation of powers.

Other important aspects of law include:

Procedural law – The rules that govern how a court operates, including its procedures and the rights of parties to a trial. Examples of procedural law include how the jury is selected, how evidence is presented and how the judge will instruct the jury.

Statutory law – The written laws of a country or state, such as criminal or civil statutes and contracts. Statutory laws are often made by parliaments or legislative assemblies.

Common law – The legal system inherited by most countries from England and other Anglophone nations. Laws of common law are typically shorter than statutory laws and rely on the doctrine of stare decisis, whereby past decisions by higher courts bind lower courts. Examples of common law include the right to a speedy trial and the doctrine of in forma pauperis (permission to sue without paying fees on claim of poverty).

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