The Basics of Law

Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. The goal of law is to create a peaceful society by ensuring that people follow the rules and get justice when they break them. It also protects individuals and groups from abuses of public or private power. Laws can be enacted by legislative bodies, resulting in statutes and regulations; established by executive decrees or regulatory agencies; or developed by judges through the “doctrine of precedent,” or stare decisis (Latin for to stand by decisions), in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also establish legal rights through contracts or other agreements.

Different societies develop laws to address particular issues. For example, laws may address issues of property rights in a community by setting clear standards for ownership. They might also set rules to keep communities safe by regulating firearms or requiring safety equipment on vehicles. These laws may be based on religious precepts, as in Jewish halakha and Islamic Sharia; or they may be based on human elaboration through a combination of interpretation, qiyas, ijma, and precedent, as in English common law.

In addition to governing social behavior, laws can be used to define and limit government power, or to promote political stability, economic growth, or equality of opportunity. In the modern world, laws govern many aspects of everyday life, including air travel, business transactions, personal privacy, intellectual property, medical jurisprudence, family law, and even criminal behavior.

Despite the enormous complexity of law, a few general principles are consistent across cultures and historical periods. One is that a well-functioning legal system must be epistemically accessible: It must be able to communicate clearly enough so that ordinary citizens can understand it, internalize it, and use it as a framework for planning their lives, making expectations about others, and settling disputes. This requires legal institutions and procedures that are independent of government, transparent in their operations, and accessible to citizens.

Another important principle is that a well-functioning legal order must be able to adapt to changing circumstances. This requires a high degree of flexibility and creativity in the development of judicial jurisprudence, especially when it comes to applying existing rules to new situations. It also requires that the law be sufficiently clear to give judges a reliable basis for interpreting and applying it in novel cases, rather than relying on strained analogies to ancient precedents.

Finally, a well-functioning legal system must serve the interests of all its citizens equally. This requires the rule of law, which includes guarantees of personal liberty and security of property, fairness in litigation, and an effective, impartial judicial process. It also requires the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial functions, as well as transparency in the way that governments conduct their business. Finally, it requires a rich source of academic doctrine to inspire legislatures and judges in their pursuit of the ideals of a just society. This is why a significant portion of the academic discipline of law is dedicated to the study of history, philosophy, ethics, and sociology of the law.