What is the Law?

The law (or laws) is a body of rules and customs that are binding on members of a community, enforced by the power of a controlling authority. The precise meaning of the term is controversial, but many definitions emphasize the idea that the law establishes standards for conduct, maintains order, resolves disputes, and protects liberties and rights.

The main function of the law is to control behavior, and therefore it is coercive. Roscoe Pound defined the law as “a system of centralized command which is used to regulate human behavior by issuing orders backed by threats.”

Different philosophers have developed competing theories of what the law is. Utilitarians such as John Austin define law as “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have the habit of obeying”. Philosophers who have taken a naturalist position, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that the law is based on moral principles of fairness and decency. Others, like Max Weber, have reshaped thinking on the nature of the law by stressing that modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over ordinary citizens create new problems for accountability that earlier writers such as Bentham or Montesquieu did not consider.

The law can be created by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, resulting in regulations; or by judges, resulting in judicial decisions that have broader legal weight and apply to similar cases in future. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements to resolve disputes outside the traditional court process.