Law is a body of rules created by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, and enforced through a controlling authority. Its precise definition has been a subject of longstanding debate, with some describing it as a science while others, such as philosopher Robert Holmes, view it more as the art of justice. Laws are generally understood to serve four major purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Whether a society can achieve these goals depends on the nature of its laws, how they are enforced and applied, and the degree to which the principles underlying them are respected by those who live in that society.
Despite the complexity of law’s many facets, some general concepts can be derived from its history. Initially, it was not a highly regulated system, with legal precedent often acting as the basis for decision making. However, the growth of the Roman Empire necessitated a more formal structure for its justice system. In medieval times, Roman codes were adapted and codified. The resulting collection of rules became the basis for English common law.
Today, the field of law encompasses almost every area of human activity. For example, labor law deals with the tripartite industrial relationship between employee, employer and trade union; civil procedure involves the rules that judges follow as they conduct trials; and evidence law relates to which materials are admissible in court for a case to be built. Criminal law, meanwhile, covers offences against the state (such as murder) and torts (such as defamation).
The societal benefits of law are often discussed in terms of “law and order.” This reflects the idea that a society in which laws are obeyed and social activities occur in an organized manner is a harmonious one. However, the phrase obscures a more significant issue: inequality in how laws are enforced and applied, and the broader problem of racial or class discrimination within law enforcement agencies themselves.
A key principle underlying law is that it should be democratically created and controlled. The process of creating laws must be open and transparent, with a clear separation between legislative and executive power. The legal system should promote equal opportunity, avoid discrimination and corruption, and allow all citizens to participate in the making of laws and have their voices heard on important issues affecting their daily lives. In addition, the rule of law requires that all persons and institutions, public and private, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. Moreover, the rule of law should be accompanied by measures to ensure adherence to international human rights norms and standards.