Theories of Law

Law is a set of rules, often written, that form a framework to ensure a peaceful society. It defines people’s rights and obligations, governs their relationships and activities with one another, and dictates consequences for violations. Law can be applied to individuals, groups or the entire community. It may be enforced by mechanisms including a police force or a court system. The law can also affect economics, politics and history.

Some theories of law suggest that laws only exist as a means to control the behavior of others. These views are sometimes called legal positivism. Others argue that law reflects morals. For example, the prohibition on insider trading reflects the ethical stance against unfair advantage obtained by using nonpublic information to make financial gains. Laws that protect people from cruel acts are also a reflection of morals, as are laws that require due process of justice in government actions.

Other theories of law include natural law, constitutional law and criminal law. Natural law theories are based on the idea that some universal principles or ideals should be regarded as fundamental to human life, such as honesty and fairness. Constitutional law concerns the foundations of a democratic state and the principles that determine how a country is governed. Criminal law deals with the punishment of those who commit crimes, and includes concepts such as due process, presumption of innocence and double jeopardy.

In addition to these broad categories, many areas of law are studied in more detail. Contract law, for instance, deals with agreements between people that have value, such as contracts for the sale of goods or services or a mortgage. Property law determines people’s rights and duties toward tangible assets, such as land or buildings, as well as intangible ones like shares of stock or bank accounts. Family law covers marriage, divorce and the rights of children. Labour law involves the tripartite industrial relationship between workers, employers and trade unions. Criminal law, meanwhile, covers offenses against the community, such as murder or larceny.

Laws vary by group. Some, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’a, are based on religious precepts. Other groups, such as common law, are derived from the decisions of judges and courts over time. Generally, however, most of the laws of a given country are based on the country’s constitutional documents and the rights encoded therein. These documents may be written, tacit or oral and reflect a particular culture and history.