The Nature of Law

Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It may have a number of purposes: keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting individual rights, providing for orderly social change, and ensuring the safety of property and life. Laws may be made and enforced by a legislature through statutes, decrees or regulations; by executive order or administrative regulation; or through court precedent (known as common law in some jurisdictions). Laws may also be created or adopted by private individuals in the form of legally binding contracts. Laws are usually written, but can also be a spoken or unwritten code of conduct or oral tradition.

Different societies have their own legal systems, reflecting cultural values and historical experiences. Some legal systems rely on an underlying moral or spiritual foundation, while others use coercion to govern their people. A fundamental issue is how much a given society should be governed by law, and how it should be defined and interpreted.

The scope of law is huge: it includes contract law, which regulates agreements for the exchange of goods or services; tort law, which governs wrongful acts that cause injury; criminal law, which punishes violations of public morality or private property; and civil rights law, which protects against discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, education, and the right to marry. Other branches include corporate law, which covers the structure of companies and corporations; labour law, which encompasses a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union; immigration and nationality law, which involves the right to work in another country and to acquire or lose citizenship; and family and criminal law. Medical jurisprudence, which studies the intersection of medicine and law, is one of the fastest growing fields in the world.

Many legal scholars have debated the nature of law, with some arguing that it is simply a means to an end: to achieve political goals such as maintaining the status quo or preserving individual rights. A utilitarian view was popularized by Bentham and John Austin, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas advocated a view of law as a reflection of innate, moral laws of nature or natural justice.

Other philosophers have focused on the role of government and society in shaping the law. The concept of law has evolved over time, with some changes resulting from technological advances. In the modern world, the growth of the internet and electronic documents has revolutionised the practice of law and brought new issues to be considered by courts. This has been accompanied by the development of law-related social sciences such as criminology and sociology, which seek to study the causes and effects of crime and injustice in the context of society as a whole. There are also a number of specialist journals and academic schools. For example, the first student edited law review, Jussens Venner, was founded in 1952 in Norway. Other well-known international law journals include the British Journal of Legal Studies and the European Law Review.