Understanding the Basics of Law


Law is a system of rules that governs people’s relationships, activities and behaviour. A law is a solemn expression of legislative will, and it orders, allows, and forbids, and announces rewards and punishments. The law provides a framework that supports society by ensuring everyone abides by the principles of fairness, justice and freedom. The legal system also enables the state to intervene to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals in the event that they are violated or threatened.

There are many different types of law. For example, contract law regulates agreements like buying a bus ticket or trading on a stock exchange. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible assets, such as land or cars, and it includes intellectual property like copyright. Tort law helps people claim compensation (repayment) when they are injured by someone else’s actions. Banking and financial law sets minimum standards for banks to adhere to, as well as rules about best practice in investment. Environmental laws are concerned with the protection of natural resources, such as water and air. Labour law covers the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade unions and includes regulations such as a minimum wage or the right to strike. Legal philosophy involves the study of the fundamental concepts, processes and structure of law. It includes the study of legal systems and the major debates in legal theory.

A central question for philosophers and lawyers is the purpose of law. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s explanation was that “law is commandment backed by the threat of sanction from an authority to which people have a habit of obedience”. John Austin used the phrase ‘law is reason embodied’ to describe how law combines a series of reasons, such as a sense of fairness and justice, with a societal desire for order and predictability. Other philosophers have theorised that laws are based on innate moral and immutable principles.

The most basic laws are those that a government or other authority creates to manage a particular activity. These laws can cover anything from traffic rules to the terms of employment contracts. Governments also have a duty to respect people’s rights and freedoms, and they can impose penalties (sanctions) when these are violated.

The law is regulated by a judiciary, which consists of a group of judges that resolve people’s disputes and determine whether people who are charged with crimes are guilty or not. The judiciary is a key component of most legal systems, and many countries have a system of appeals courts up to the highest authority such as the Supreme Court. Many judicial decisions have the force of law, and the “doctrine of precedent” means that previous cases set the standard for future ones. This is known as stare decisis. Many legal systems also have a code of ethics that judges must follow.