What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that governs human interactions. The law imposes obligations and prohibitions and establishes standards to protect individual rights, maintain order, resolve conflicts, and promote social change. Laws also ensure that society operates fairly and that individuals are treated equally. Laws vary widely from place to place, but some legal systems have similarities based on historically accepted justice ideals. The most common groups of legal systems are common law, civil law, religious law, and customary law. Many countries employ more than one legal system at a time to create a hybrid law.

The rule of law describes a political system in which all persons, institutions and entities, both public and private, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It includes measures ensuring supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in application, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, and legal certainty.

A legal right is the power, either legally recognized or not, to alter a person’s normal position, relations and norms (Raz 1970: 183). For example, Joseph may have a legal right in his good name, but whether or not this legal right is valid depends on whether or not someone else legally recognizes it. The legal recognition of a right can be achieved through acts of law (laws or judicial decisions directly bestowing a right) and through the creation of rights by voluntary actions of private persons, such as gifts, forfeitures, appropriations, appointments or last wills and testaments.

Legal rights may be governed by constitutional or statutory rules, but even these laws are not inflexible and can be amended to reflect social and technological changes. Some legal rights, such as the freedom of speech or religion, are fundamental and cannot be changed by law. Other rights, such as property ownership and privacy, are more flexible and can be adjusted by legislative action or the courts through the development of case law.

There are numerous ways in which a law can be broken or violated. When a violation occurs, it may be punished under criminal or administrative law. For example, a criminal law violation might be committed by committing a crime such as murder or robbery. An administrative law violation might involve the violation of a statute or an official policy. The violation of a statute could be punished by a fine or imprisonment. The violation of an official policy might be punished by reprimand or expulsion from office. In either instance, the violation of the law is considered to be a breach of the public’s trust. In addition, violations of the public’s trust can lead to political instability and societal discontent.

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