The Definition of Law


Law is a set of rules and policies enforced by a government that regulates behavior, establishes standards, maintains order, resolves disputes, protects liberties and rights and ensures social justice. Jurists define law differently based on their own theories and approaches, but all share the same goal of securing justice in society.

Some legal scholars consider all human rules to be law in some sense, while others limit the concept to a specific type of rule, namely those that are binding and enforceable through a government’s authority and power. Some legal scholars also incorporate elements of morality or ethics into their definitions, whereas others focus solely on the practical function of law.

A wide variety of laws exist to govern the daily activities of people in all sorts of societies. Contract law, for example, regulates agreements to exchange goods or services. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects (such as houses or cars) as well as intangible assets such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Criminal law punishes those who commit crimes such as murder or robbery. Civil laws provide recourse when individuals are harmed by another person, such as in a car accident or defamation lawsuit.

Different laws serve distinct functions in each nation. Some legal systems help keep the peace, maintain social status quo and preserve individual rights, while others support social justice and allow for orderly social change. In some cases, military, police or bureaucratic power over the lives of citizens poses special problems for accountability that earlier writers such as Locke and Montesquieu could not have foreseen.

The purpose of law is largely a matter of political will, as is reflected in the choice to make and uphold laws that serve the nation’s interests. A nation’s governing philosophy is often reflected in its constitutional structure, as well as the way it distributes and exercises its sovereign powers.

John Austin’s utilitarian definition of law identifies the main functions of law as “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to which his subjects have a habit of obedience”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other natural lawyers argue that law reflects the fundamental laws of nature, which are unchanging and moral.

The functionalist definition of law focuses on the role of a state in regulating social life and maintaining public order, resolving conflicts and protecting rights. It emphasizes the need to provide people with access to justice and a clear statement of their rights and duties. It also stresses the importance of legal education and judicial independence, which are necessary to an effective law system. It places a premium on the rule of law over other forms of social control, including customs and traditions, and recognizes that it is the governmental responsibility to ensure that the law is applied fairly and consistently. In a functionalist definition of law, the judiciary has a central role in interpretation and creating new jurisprudence to address changing social needs.