What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that governs the lives of individuals and organizations. It can include laws related to business, criminal justice, government and civil rights.

Law can keep the peace and maintain a country’s status quo, protect citizens against tyranny and majorities, promote social justice, provide orderly change, and protect property. It also helps governments maintain and develop their power, ensure public safety, and prevent crime.

Some legal systems do better than others at these purposes, though all serve them. These functions are generally based on three principles: (1) a democratic government with clear, widely publicized, and fair processes for making, administering, adjudicating, and enforcing laws; (2) individual rights protected by the law; and (3) a well-functioning justice system.

A rule of law is a set of principles that is universally recognized and adhered to by all peoples. These principles are usually reflected in the constitution of each country, and include:


The concept of reasonableness is a key issue in court cases because it determines how judges can interpret what the law says. Judges must consider both the facts of a case and the opinions of other courts, but they are limited by what they can learn from past cases.


The responsibility of a person for what they do is a vital part of the rule of law because it makes clear that people should not harm others without sufficient cause. For example, if you are sued for stealing someone else’s property, you have a legal duty to repair the damage you caused them.

‘Responsibility’ can also be used in other contexts to describe what a person should do in certain situations, such as when they are accused of a crime or defending themselves against an accusation.

Claims and privileges are first-order norms, whereas powers and immunities are second-order norms (Lyons 1970; Sumner 1987). The distinction between claims and privileges and between powers and immunities can be a bit fuzzy but it is generally a matter of defining what the rights-holder has ‘actively’ or ‘passively’ done in the past to obtain their present rights, and whether these actions are ‘legally’ or ‘normatively’ liable to change under future circumstances.

A right-holder’s active rights can be a claim (that they are entitled to something) or a privilege (that they are able to do things). A right-holder’s passive rights can be a power (that they are able to do things) or an immunity (that they are unable to do things).

There is also a difference between “public” and “private” powers. Public powers are held by the state or persons in their capacity as officers or agents of the state, and private powers are held by private individuals or corporations.

Common law and civil law are two major forms of legal system around the world. The former is based on concepts, categories, and rules derived from Roman law.

These legal systems are found on all continents and cover about 60% of the world.