The Nature of Law


Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.

Several goals of law have been identified, including maintaining peace, providing for equitable distribution of resources, ensuring justice, and keeping society organized. The nature of law varies from place to place, and from time to time. It may be based on religious precepts, on social custom and practice or, as the nineteenth century saw with French civil law, on comprehensive systems of codes that consolidated splintered legal traditions.

In a more ontological sense, Holmes defined law as each participant’s prediction of the intersection of his or her narrative with an external reality that is shaped by other peoples’ narratives. The deviation of one’s narrative from the narratives of other participants is a measure of the strength of law, which can be proven or hypothetical, sanctioned or unsanctioned, true or false and harmonious or antagonistic.

The fundamental objective of law is to ensure the rule of law, a principle that is central to a democratic society and that has been defined as public accountability, equality before the law, legal certainty, separation of powers, participation in decision making, and avoidance of arbitrariness and unwarranted extension of state power. This is achieved through measures such as supremacy of the law, public promulgation, equality in application of the law, legal certainty, the separation of executive and judicial functions, transparency of decision making and participation by all.

Another purpose of law is to establish standards for acceptable behaviour in society, for example by prohibiting certain acts such as causing physical injury to another person or damaging property. This function can also be seen in the constitutional guarantee of a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Finally, law is the source of justice, whether distributive or corrective. Distributive justice seeks to ensure that everyone gets what they deserve, while corrective justice attempts to rectify injustice. The law may also ensure that the state or private entities do not act without good cause or exceed their authority.

Law is a complex issue that is the subject of much scholarly inquiry into law, history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. As a social construct, law is based on a set of assumptions that cannot be empirically tested. The concept of the law is not fixed, however, and continues to evolve as social and technological changes occur. For example, new technology such as the Internet has reshaped our understanding of how laws are made and how they are enforced. In addition, the responsibilities of the modern military, police forces and bureaucracies require new models of accountability that Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking about. These developments raise new issues concerning the scope of law and the limits on its power.

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