AskDefine | Define law

Dictionary Definition



1 legal document setting forth rules governing a particular kind of activity; "there is a law against kidnapping"
2 the collection of rules imposed by authority; "civilization presupposes respect for the law"; "the great problem for jurisprudence to allow freedom while enforcing order" [syn: jurisprudence]
3 a generalization that describes recurring facts or events in nature; "the laws of thermodynamics" [syn: law of nature]
4 a rule or body of rules of conduct inherent in human nature and essential to or binding upon human society [syn: natural law]
5 the learned profession that is mastered by graduate study in a law school and that is responsible for the judicial system; "he studied law at Yale" [syn: practice of law]
6 the force of policemen and officers; "the law came looking for him" [syn: police, police force, constabulary]
7 the branch of philosophy concerned with the law and the principles that lead courts to make the decisions they do [syn: jurisprudence, legal philosophy]

User Contributed Dictionary





Old English lagu.


  1. A written or understood rule that concerns behaviours and the appropriate consequences thereof. Laws are usually associated with mores.
  2. The body of rules issued by the legislative authority.
  3. (uncountable) The body of rules and standards to be applied by courts and similar authorities
  4. A one-sided contract.
  5. A well-established, observed physical characteristic or behavior of nature.
    Newton and Einstein understood the law of gravitation in very different ways.
  6. A statement that is true under specified conditions.
  7. A category of English "common law" petitions that request monetary relief, as opposed to relief in forms other than a monetary judgment; compare to "equity".
  8. One of the official rules of cricket as codified by the MCC.
  9. (uncountable) The police.
    Here comes the law — run!


written or understood rule
  • ttbc Arabic: (qanoon) , (shari'a) .
  • Albanian: ligj
  • Catalan: llei
  • Croatian: zakon 'm''
  • Czech: zákon
  • Danish: lov
  • Dutch: wet
  • Esperanto: leĝo
  • Estonian: seadus
  • Ewe: se
  • Finnish: laki
  • French: loi
  • German: Gesetz
  • Hebrew: דין, חוק
  • Hungarian: törvény
  • Italian: legge
  • Japanese: (ほう, hō)
  • Korean: [法] (beop)
  • Kurdish: qanûn , zagon , yasa
  • Latin: lex
  • Malayalam: നിയമം (niyamam)
  • Norwegian: lov
  • Old English: dom
  • Persian: (ghaanoon)
  • Polish: prawo, reguła, zasada
  • Romanian: lege
  • Portuguese: lei
  • Russian: закон, правило
  • Sardinian (Campidanese): lei
  • Serbian: zakon, pravilo
  • Slovene: zakon
  • Spanish: ley
  • Swedish: regel
  • Telugu: నియమము (niyamamu)
body of rules from the legislative authority
  • ttbc Arabic: qanoon , (shar') .
  • Catalan: llei
  • Czech: zákoník
  • Danish: lov
  • Dutch: wet
  • Estonian: seadus
  • Ewe: se
  • Finnish: laki
  • French: loi
  • German: Gesetz
  • Italian: legge
  • Japanese: 法律 (ほうりつ, hōritsu)
  • Korean: 법률 [法律] (beopryul)
  • Kurdish: qanûn, zagon, yasa
  • Latin: lex
  • Old English: dom
  • Malayalam: നിയമം (niyamam)
  • Norwegian: lov
  • Persian: (ghaanoon)
  • Polish: prawo
  • Portuguese: lei
  • Romanian: lege
  • Russian: право
  • Serbian: zakon, pravilo, pravo
  • Slovene: pravo
  • Spanish: ley
  • Swedish: lag
  • Telugu: చట్టము (chaTTamu)
body of rules and standards to be applied by courts
one-sided contract
observed physical behavior
in mathematics
category of English "common law"
in cricket
slang: the police
  • Danish: loven (definite)
  • Finnish: kytät (plural)
  • German: Gesetz
  • Norwegian: loven
  • Portuguese: lei

Lower Sorbian


From , from .


  1. lion

Extensive Definition

In a global economy, law is globalising too. International law can refer to three things: public international law, private international law or conflict of laws and the law of supranational organisations.
  • Conflict of laws (or "private international law" in civil law countries) concerns which jurisdiction a legal dispute between private parties should be heard in and which jurisdiction's law should be applied. Today, businesses are increasingly capable of shifting capital and labour supply chains across borders, as well as trading with overseas businesses. This increases the number of disputes outside a unified legal framework. Increasing numbers of businesses opt for commercial arbitration under the New York Convention 1958.
  • European Union law is the first and thus far only example of a supranational legal framework. However, given increasing global economic integration, many regional agreements—especially the Union of South American Nations—are on track to follow the same model. In the EU, sovereign nations have pooled their authority through a system of courts and political institutions. They have the ability to enforce legal norms against and for member states and citizens, in a way that public international law does not. As the European Court of Justice said in 1962, European Union law constitutes "a new legal order of international law" for the mutual social and economic benefit of the member states.

Constitutional and administrative law

Constitutional and administrative law govern the affairs of the state. Constitutional law concerns both the relationships between the executive, legislature and judiciary and the human rights or civil liberties of individuals against the state. Most jurisdictions, like the United States and France, have a single codified constitution, with a Bill of Rights. A few, like the United Kingdom, have no such document. A "constitution" is simply those laws which constitute the body politic, from statute, case law and convention. A case named Entick v. Carrington illustrates a constitutional principle deriving from the common law. Mr Entick's house was searched and ransacked by Sheriff Carrington. When Mr Entick complained in court, Sheriff Carrington argued that a warrant from a Government minister, the Earl of Halifax, was valid authority. However, there was no written statutory provision or court authority. The leading judge, Lord Camden, stated that,
"The great end, for which men entered into society, was to secure their property. That right is preserved sacred and incommunicable in all instances, where it has not been taken away or abridged by some public law for the good of the whole… If no excuse can be found or produced, the silence of the books is an authority against the defendant, and the plaintiff must have judgment."
The fundamental constitutional principle, inspired by John Locke, is that the individual can do anything but that which is forbidden by law, and the state may do nothing but that which is authorised by law. Administrative law is the chief method for people to hold state bodies to account. People can apply for judicial review of actions or decisions by local councils, public services or government ministries, to ensure that they comply with the law. The first specialist administrative court was the Conseil d'État set up in 1799, as Napoleon assumed power in France.

Criminal law

Criminal law is the body of law that defines criminal offences and the penalties for convicted offenders. Apprehending, charging, and trying suspected offenders is regulated by the law of criminal procedure. The paradigm case of a crime lies in the proof, beyond reasonable doubt, that a person is guilty of two things. First, the accused must commit an act which is deemed by society to be criminal, or actus reus (guilty act). Second, the accused must have the requisite malicious intent to do a criminal act, or mens rea (guilty mind). However for so called "strict liability" crimes, which include cases like dangerous driving, proof of mens rea is not necessary. An actus reus is enough.
Examples of different kinds of crime include murder, assault, fraud or theft. In exceptional circumstances, defences can exist to some crimes, such as killing in self defence, or pleading insanity. Another example is in the 19th century English case of R v. Dudley and Stephens, which tested a defence of "necessity". The Mignotte, sailing from Southampton to Sydney, sank. Three crew members and a cabin boy were stranded on a raft. They were starving and the cabin boy was close to death. Driven to extreme hunger, the crew killed and ate the cabin boy. The crew survived and were rescued, but put on trial for murder. They argued it was necessary to kill the cabin boy to preserve their own lives. Lord Coleridge, expressing immense disapproval, ruled, "to preserve one's life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it." The men were sentenced to hang, but public opinion, especially among seafarers, was outraged and overwhelmingly supportive of the crew's right to preserve their own lives. In the end, the Crown commuted their sentences to six months in jail.
Criminal law offences are viewed as offences against not just individual victims, but the community as well.

Contract law

The concept of a "contract" is based on the Latin phrase pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept). Contracts can be simple everyday buying and selling or complex multi-party agreements. They can be made orally (e.g. buying a newspaper) or in writing (e.g. signing a contract of employment). Sometimes formalities, such as writing the contract down or having it witnessed, are required for the contract to take effect (e.g. when buying a house).
In common law jurisdictions, there are three key elements to the creation of a contract. These are offer and acceptance, consideration and an intention to create legal relations. For example, in Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company a medical firm advertised that its new wonder drug, the smokeball, would cure people's flu, and if it did not, the buyers would get £100. Many people sued for their £100 when the drug did not work. Fearing bankruptcy, Carbolic argued the advert was not to be taken as a serious, legally binding offer. It was an invitation to treat, mere puff, a gimmick. But the court of appeal held that to a reasonable man Carbolic had made a serious offer. People had given good consideration for it by going to the "distinct inconvenience" of using a faulty product. "Read the advertisement how you will, and twist it about as you will", said Lord Justice Lindley, "here is a distinct promise expressed in language which is perfectly unmistakable". In civil law jurisdictions, consideration is not a requirement for a contract at all. In France, an ordinary contract is said to form simply on the basis of a "meeting of the minds" or a "concurrence of wills". Germany has a special approach to contracts, which ties into property law. Their 'abstraction principle' (Abstraktionsprinzip) means that the personal obligation of contract forms separately from the title of property being conferred. When contracts are invalidated for some reason (e.g. a car buyer is so drunk that he lacks legal capacity to contract) the contractual obligation to pay can be invalidated separately from the proprietary title of the car. Unjust enrichment law, rather than contract law, is then used to restore title to the rightful owner.

Tort law

Torts, sometimes called delicts, are civil wrongs. To have acted tortiously, one must have breached a duty to another person, or infringed some pre-existing legal right. A simple example might be accidentally hitting someone with a cricket ball. Under negligence law, the most common form of tort, the injured party could potentially claim compensation for his injuries from the party responsible. The principles of negligence are illustrated by Donoghue v. Stevenson. A friend of Mrs Donoghue ordered an opaque bottle of ginger beer (intended for the consumption of Mrs Donoghue) in a café in Paisley. Having consumed half of it, Mrs Donoghue poured the remainder into a tumbler. The decomposing remains of a snail floated out. She claimed to have suffered from shock, fell ill with gastroenteritis and sued the manufacturer for carelessly allowing the drink to be contaminated. The House of Lords decided that the manufacturer was liable for Mrs Donoghue's illness. Lord Atkin took a distinctly moral approach, and said,
"The liability for negligence… is no doubt based upon a general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing for which the offender must pay… The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer's question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour."
This became the basis for the four principles of negligence; (1) Mr Stevenson owed Mrs Donoghue a duty of care to provide safe drinks (2) he breached his duty of care (3) the harm would not have occurred but for his breach and (4) his act was the proximate cause, or not too remote a consequence, of her harm. Under a nuisance claim the noise could be stopped. Torts can also involve intentional acts, such as assault, battery or trespass. A better known tort is defamation, which occurs, for example, when a newspaper makes unsupportable allegations that damage a politician's reputation. More infamous are economic torts, which form the basis of labour law in some countries by making trade unions liable for strikes, when statute does not provide immunity.

Property law

Property law governs everything that people call 'theirs'. Real property, sometimes called 'real estate' refers to ownership of land and things attached to it. Personal property, refers to everything else; movable objects, such as computers, cars, jewelry, and sandwiches, or intangible rights, such as stocks and shares. A right in rem is a right to a specific piece of property, contrasting to a right in personam which allows compensation for a loss, but not a particular thing back. Land law forms the basis for most kinds of property law, and is the most complex. It concerns mortgages, rental agreements, licences, covenants, easements and the statutory systems for land registration. Regulations on the use of personal property fall under intellectual property, company law, trusts and commercial law. An example of a basic case of most property law is Armory v. Delamirie. A chimney sweep's boy found a jewel encrusted with precious stones. He took it to a goldsmith to have it valued. The goldsmith's apprentice looked at it, sneakily removed the stones, told the boy it was worth three halfpence and that he would buy it. The boy said he would prefer the jewel back, so the apprentice gave it to him, but without the stones. The boy sued the goldsmith for his apprentice's attempt to cheat him. Lord Chief Justice Pratt ruled that even though the boy could not be said to own the jewel, he should be considered the rightful keeper until the original owner is found. In fact the apprentice and the boy both had a right of possession in the jewel (a technical concept, meaning evidence that something could belong to someone), but the boy's possessory interest was considered better, because it could be shown to be first in time. Physical possession is nine tenths of the law, but not all.
This case is used to support the view of property in common law jurisdictions, that the person who can show the best claim to a piece of property, against any contesting party, is the owner. By contrast, the classic civil law approach to property, propounded by Friedrich Carl von Savigny, is that it is a right good against the world. Obligations, like contracts and torts are conceptualised as rights good between individuals. The idea of property raises many further philosophical and political issues. The English philosopher John Locke argued that our "lives, liberties and estates" are our property because we own our bodies and mix our labour with our surroundings. The idea of privately owned property has been contentious in the view of a number of thinkers. Pierre Proudhon, an anarchist thinker, argued in 1840 that "property is theft".

Equity and Trusts

Equity is a body of rules that developed in England separately from the "common law". The common law was administered by judges. The Lord Chancellor on the other hand, as the King's keeper of conscience, could overrule the judge made law if he thought it equitable to do so. This meant equity came to operate more through principles than rigid rules. For instance, whereas neither the common law nor civil law systems allow people to split the ownership from the control of one piece of property, equity allows this through an arrangement known as a 'trust'. 'Trustees' control property, whereas the 'beneficial' (or 'equitable') ownership of trust property is held by people known as 'beneficiaries'. Trustees owe duties to their beneficiaries to take good care of the entrusted property. In the early case of Keech v. Sandford a child had inherited the lease on a market in Romford, London. Mr Sandford was entrusted to look after this property until the child matured. But before then, the lease expired. The landlord had (apparently) told Mr Sandford that he did not want the child to have the renewed lease. Yet the landlord was happy (apparently) to give Mr Sandford the opportunity of the lease instead. Mr Sandford took it. When the child (now Mr Keech) grew up, he sued Mr Sandford for the profit that he had been making by getting the market's lease. Mr Sandford was meant to be trusted, but he put himself in a position of conflict of interest. The Lord Chancellor, Lord King, agreed and ordered Mr Sandford should disgorge his profits. He wrote,
"I very well see, if a trustee, on the refusal to renew, might have a lease to himself few trust-estates would be renewed… This may seem very hard, that the trustee is the only person of all mankind who might not have the lease; but it is very proper that the rule should be strictly pursued and not at all relaxed."
Of course, Lord King LC was worried that trustees might exploit opportunities to use trust property for themselves instead of looking after it. Business speculators using trusts had just recently caused a stock market crash. Strict duties for trustees made their way into company law and were applied to directors and chief executive officers. Another example of a trustee's duty might be to invest property wisely or sell it. This is especially the case for pension funds, the most important form of trust, where investors are trustees for people's savings until retirement. But trusts can also be set up for charitable purposes, famous examples being the British Museum or the Rockefeller Foundation.

Further disciplines

Law spreads far beyond the core subjects into virtually every area of life. Three categories are presented for convenience, though the subjects intertwine and flow into one another.

Legal systems

In general, legal systems around the world can be split between civil law jurisdictions, on the one hand, and systems using common law and equity, on the other. The term civil law, referring to a legal system, should not be confused with civil law as a group of legal subjects, as distinguished from criminal law or public law. A third type of legal system — still accepted by some countries in part, or even in whole — is religious law, based on scriptures and interpretations thereof. The specific system that a country follows is often determined by its history, its connection with countries abroad, and its adherence to international standards. The sources that jurisdictions recognise as authoritatively binding are the defining features of legal systems. Yet classification of different systems is a matter of form rather than substance, since similar rules often prevail.

Civil law

Civil law is the legal system used in most countries around the world today. In civil law the sources recognised as authoritative are, primarily, legislation – especially codifications in constitutions or statutes passed by government – and, secondarily, custom. Codifications date back millennia, with one early example being the ancient Babylonian Codex Hammurabi, but modern civil law systems essentially derive from the legal practice of the Roman Empire, whose texts were rediscovered in medieval Europe. Roman law in the days of the Roman Republic and Empire was heavily procedural, and there was no professional legal class. Instead a lay person, iudex, was chosen to adjudicate. Precedents were not reported, so any case law that developed was disguised and almost unrecognised. Each case was to be decided afresh from the laws of the state, which mirrors the (theoretical) unimportance of judges' decisions for future cases in civil law systems today. During the 6th century AD in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Emperor Justinian codified and consolidated the laws that had existed in Rome, so that what remained was one-twentieth of the mass of legal texts from before. This became known as the Corpus Juris Civilis. As one legal historian wrote, "Justinian consciously looked back to the golden age of Roman law and aimed to restore it to the peak it had reached three centuries before." Western Europe, meanwhile, slowly slipped into the Dark Ages, and it was not until the 11th century that scholars in the University of Bologna rediscovered the texts and used them to interpret their own laws. Civil law codifications based closely on Roman law, alongside some influences from religious laws such as Canon law and Islamic law, Today countries that have civil law systems range from Russia and China to most of Central and Latin America.

Common law and equity

Common law and equity are systems of law whose special distinction is the doctrine of precedent, or stare decisis (Latin for "to stand by decisions"). Alongside this "judge-made law", common law systems always have governments who pass new laws and statutes. But these are not put into a codified form. Common law comes from England and was inherited by almost every country that once belonged to the British Empire, with the exceptions of Malta, Scotland, the U.S. state of Louisiana and the Canadian province of Quebec. Common law had its beginnings in medieval England, influenced by the Norman conquest of England which introduced legal concepts and institutions from the Norman and Islamic laws. Common law further developed when the English monarchy had been weakened by the enormous cost of fighting for control over large parts of France. King John had been forced by his barons to sign a document limiting his authority to pass laws. This "great charter" or Magna Carta of 1215 also required that the King's entourage of judges hold their courts and judgments at "a certain place" rather than dispensing autocratic justice in unpredictable places about the country. A concentrated and elite group of judges acquired a dominant role in law-making under this system, and compared to its European counterparts the English judiciary became highly centralised. In 1297, for instance, while the highest court in France had fifty-one judges, the English Court of Common Pleas had five. This powerful and tight-knit judiciary gave rise to a rigid and inflexible system of common law. As a result, as time went on, increasing numbers of citizens petitioned the King to override the common law, and on the King's behalf the Lord Chancellor gave judgment to do what was equitable in a case. From the time of Sir Thomas More, the first lawyer to be appointed as Lord Chancellor, a systematic body of equity grew up alongside the rigid common law, and developed its own Court of Chancery. At first, equity was often criticised as erratic, that it "varies like the Chancellor's foot". But over time it developed solid principles, especially under Lord Eldon. In the 19th century the two systems were fused into one another. In developing the common law and equity, academic authors have always played an important part. William Blackstone, from around 1760, was the first scholar to describe and teach it. But merely in describing, scholars who sought explanations and underlying structures slowly changed the way the law actually worked.

Religious law

Religious law refers to the notion that the word of God is law. Examples include the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, both of which mean the "path to follow". Christian canon law also survives in some church communities. The implication of religion for law is unalterability, because the word of God cannot be amended or legislated against by judges or governments. However religion never provides a thorough and detailed legal system. For instance, the Quran has some law, and it acts merely as a source of further law through interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent. This is mainly contained in a body of law and jurisprudence known as Sharia and Fiqh respectively, which had a fairly significant influence on the development of common law, In modern times, Sharia is merely an optional supplement to the civil or common law of most countries, though Saudi Arabia and Iran's whole legal systems source their law on a codified form of Sharia. During the last few decades, one of the fundamental features of the movement of Islamic resurgence has been the call to restore the Sharia, which has generated a vast amount of literature and affected world politics.


Though the legal traditions described have resulted in a number of common traits across jurisdictions, each sovereign entity can have unique aspects. The lists below link to articles on individual jurisdictions, organised by geography.

Legal theory

History of law

The history of law is closely connected to the development of civilizations. Ancient Egyptian law, dating as far back as 3000 BCE, had a civil code that was probably broken into twelve books. It was based on the concept of Ma'at, characterised by tradition, rhetorical speech, social equality and impartiality. By the 22nd century BC, Ur-Nammu, an ancient Sumerian ruler, formulated the first law code, consisting of casuistic statements ("if... then..."). Around 1760 BC, King Hammurabi further developed Babylonian law, by codifying and inscribing it in stone. Hammurabi placed several copies of his law code throughout the kingdom of Babylon as stelae, for the entire public to see; this became known as the Codex Hammurabi. The most intact copy of these stelae was discovered in the 19th century by British Assyriologists, and has since been fully transliterated and translated into various languages, including English, German, and French.
The Old Testament is probably the oldest body of law still relevant for modern legal systems, dating back to 1280 BCE. It takes the form of moral imperatives, as recommendations for a good society. Ancient Athens, the small Greek city-state, was the first society based on broad inclusion of the citizenry, excluding women and the slave class from about 8th century BCE. Athens had no legal science, and Ancient Greek has no word for "law" as an abstract concept. Yet Ancient Greek law contained major constitutional innovations in the development of democracy.
Roman law was heavily influenced by Greek teachings. It forms the bridge to the modern legal world, over the centuries between the rise and decline of the Roman Empire. Roman law underwent major codification in the Corpus Juris Civilis of Emperor Justinian I. It was lost through the Dark Ages, but rediscovered around the 11th century. Mediæval legal scholars began researching the Roman codes and using their concepts. In mediæval England, the King's powerful judges began to develop a body of precedent, which became the common law. But also, a Europe-wide Lex Mercatoria was formed, so that merchants could trade using familiar standards, rather than the many splintered types of local law. The Lex Mercatoria, a precursor to modern commercial law, emphasised the freedom of contract and alienability of property. As nationalism grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, Lex Mercatoria was incorporated into countries' local law under new civil codes. The French Napoleonic Code and the German became the most influential. As opposed to English common law, which consists of enormous tomes of case law, codes in small books are easy to export and for judges to apply. However, today there are signs that civil and common law are converging. European Union law is codified in treaties, but develops through the precedent laid down by the European Court of Justice.
Ancient India and China represent distinct traditions of law, and had historically independent schools of legal theory and practice. The Arthashastra, probably compiled around 100 AD (though containing some older material), and the Manusmriti(c. 100-300 AD) were foundational treatises in India, texts that were considered authoritative legal guidance. Manu's central philosophy was tolerance and Pluralism, and was cited across Southeast Asia. This Hindu tradition, along with Islamic law, was supplanted by the common law when India became part of the British Empire. Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Hong Kong also adopted the common law. The eastern Asia legal tradition reflects a unique blend of secular and religious influences. Japan was the first country to begin modernising its legal system along western lines, by importing bits of the French, but mostly the German Civil Code. This partly reflected Germany's status as a rising power in the late 19th century. Similarly, traditional Chinese law gave way to westernisation towards the final years of the Ch'ing dynasty in the form of six private law codes based mainly on the Japanese model of German law. Today Taiwanese law retains the closest affinity to the codifications from that period, because of the split between Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists, who fled there, and Mao Zedong's communists who won control of the mainland in 1949. The current legal infrastructure in the People's Republic of China was heavily influenced by Soviet Socialist law, which essentially inflates administrative law at the expense of private law rights. Today, however, because of rapid industrialisation China has been reforming, at least in terms of economic (if not social and political) rights. A new contract code in 1999 represented a turn away from administrative domination. Furthermore, after negotiations lasting fifteen years, in 2001 China joined the World Trade Organisation.

Philosophy of law

seealso Political philosophy The philosophy of law is also known as jurisprudence. Normative jurisprudence is essentially political philosophy and asks "what should law be?". Analytic jurisprudence, on the other hand, is a distinctive field which asks "what is law?". An early famous philosopher of law was John Austin, a student of Jeremy Bentham and first chair of law at the new University of London from 1829. Austin's utilitarian answer was that law is "commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience". This approach was long accepted, especially as an alternative to natural law theory. Natural lawyers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that human law reflects essentially moral and unchangeable laws of nature. Immanuel Kant, for instance, believed a moral imperative requires laws "be chosen as though they should hold as universal laws of nature". Austin and Bentham, following David Hume, thought this conflated what "is" and what "ought to be" the case. They believed in law's positivism, that real law is entirely separate from "morality". Kant was also criticised by Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that law emanates from The Will to Power and cannot be labelled as "moral" or "immoral". Thus, Nietzsche criticised the principle of equality, and believed that law should be committed to freedom to engage in will to power.
In 1934, the Austrian philosopher Hans Kelsen continued the positivist tradition in his book the Pure Theory of Law. Kelsen believed that though law is separate from morality, it is endowed with "normativity", meaning we ought to obey it. Whilst laws are positive "is" statements (e.g. the fine for reversing on a highway is 500), law tells us what we "should" do (i.e. not drive backwards). So every legal system can be hypothesised to have a basic norm (Grundnorm) telling us we should obey the law. Carl Schmitt, Kelsen's major intellectual opponent, rejected positivism, and the idea of the rule of law, because he did not accept the primacy of abstract normative principles over concrete political positions and decisions. Therefore, Schmitt advocated a jurisprudence of the exception (state of emergency), which denied that legal norms could encompass of all political experience. Later in the 20th century, H. L. A. Hart attacked Austin for his simplifications and Kelsen for his fictions in The Concept of Law. As the chair of jurisprudence at Oxford University, Hart argued law is a "system of rules". Rules, said Hart, are divided into primary rules (rules of conduct) and secondary rules (rules addressed to officials to administer primary rules). Secondary rules are divided into rules of adjudication (to resolve legal disputes), rules of change (allowing laws to be varied) and the rule of recognition (allowing laws to be identified as valid). Two of Hart's students have continued the debate since. Ronald Dworkin was his successor in the Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford and his greatest critic. In his book Law's Empire, Dworkin attacked Hart and the positivists for their refusal to treat law as a moral issue. Dworkin argues that law is an "interpretive concept", that requires judges to find the best fitting and most just solution to a legal dispute, given their constitutional traditions. Joseph Raz, on the other hand, has defended the positivist outlook and even criticised Hart's 'soft social thesis' approach in The Authority of Law. Raz argues that law is authority, identifiable purely through social sources, without reference to moral reasoning. Any categorisation of rules beyond their role as authoritative dispute mediation is best left to sociology, rather than jurisprudence.

Economic analysis of law

Economic analysis of law is an approach to legal theory that incorporates and applies the methods and ideas of economics to law. The discipline arose partly out of a critique of trade unions and U.S. antitrust law. The most influential proponents, such as Richard Posner and Oliver Williamson and the so-called Chicago School of economists and lawyers including Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, are generally advocates of deregulation and privatisation, and are hostile to state regulation or what they see as restrictions on the operation of free markets.
The most prominent economic analyst of law is 1991 Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase. His first major article, The Nature of the Firm (1937), argued that the reason for the existence of firms (companies, partnerships, etc.) is the existence of transaction costs. Rational individuals trade through bilateral contracts on open markets until the costs of transactions mean that using corporations to produce things is more cost-effective. His second major article, The Problem of Social Cost (1960), argued that if we lived in a world without transaction costs, people would bargain with one another to create the same allocation of resources, regardless of the way a court might rule in property disputes. Coase used the example of a nuisance case named Sturges v. Bridgman, where a noisy sweetmaker and a quiet doctor were neighbours and went to court to see who should have to move. Coase said that regardless of whether the judge ruled that the sweetmaker had to stop using his machinery, or that the doctor had to put up with it, they could strike a mutually beneficial bargain about who moves house that reaches the same outcome of resource distribution. Only the existence of transaction costs may prevent this. So the law ought to pre-empt what would happen, and be guided by the most efficient solution. The idea is that law and regulation are not as important or effective at helping people as lawyers and government planners believe. Coase and others like him wanted a change of approach, to put the burden of proof for positive effects on a government that was intervening in the market, by analysing the costs of action.

Sociology of law

Sociology of law is a diverse field of study that examines the interaction of law with society. Sociology of law overlaps with jurisprudence, economic analysis of law and more specialised subjects such as criminology. The institutions of law and the social construction of legal issues and systems are relevant areas of inquiry. Initially, legal theorists were suspicious of the discipline. Kelsen attacked one of its founders, Eugen Ehrlich, who wanted to emphasise the difference between positive law, which lawyers learn and apply, and other forms of 'law' or social norms that regulate everyday life, generally preventing conflicts from reaching lawyers and courts. Around 1900 Max Weber defined his "scientific" approach to law, identifying the "legal rational form" as a type of domination, not attributable to people but to abstract norms. Legal rationalism was his term for a body of coherent and calculable law which formed a precondition for modern political developments and the modern bureaucratic state and developed in parallel with the growth of capitalism. Another sociologist, Émile Durkheim, wrote in The Division of Labour in Society that as society becomes more complex, the body of civil law concerned primarily with restitution and compensation grows at the expense of criminal laws and penal sanctions. Other notable early legal sociologists included Hugo Sinzheimer, Theodor Geiger, Georges Gurvitch and Leon Petrażycki in Europe, and William Graham Sumner in the U.S.

Legal institutions

The main institutions of law in liberal democracies are independent judiciaries and justice systems, representative legislatures or parliaments, an accountable executive, a competent and non-corrupt bureaucracy and police force, civilian control of the military, and a robust legal profession and civil society.
John Locke, in Two Treatises of Government, and Baron de Montesquieu after him in The Spirit of the Laws, advocated a separation of powers between the institutions that wield political influence, namely the judiciary, legislature and executive. Their principle was that no person should be able to usurp all powers of the state, in contrast to the absolutist theory of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. More recently, Max Weber and many others reshaped thinking about the extensions of the state that come under the control of the executive. Modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over ordinary citizens' daily lives pose special problems for accountability that earlier writers like Locke and Montesquieu could not have foreseen. The custom and practice of the legal profession is an important part of people's access to justice, whilst civil society is a term used to refer to the social institutions, communities and partnerships that form law's political basis.


A judiciary is a group of judges who mediate people's disputes and determine the outcome. Most countries have a system of appeals courts, up to a supreme authority. In the U.S.A., this is the Supreme Court; in Australia, the High Court; in the UK, the House of Lords; in Germany, the Bundesverfassungsgericht; in France, the Cour de Cassation. However, for most European countries the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg may overrule national law, where EU law is relevant. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg allows citizens of the Council of Europe member states to bring cases to it concerning human rights issues.
Some countries allow their highest judicial authority to strike down legislation determined to be unconstitutional. For instance, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texan law forbidding assistance to women in abortion, in Roe v. Wade. The constitution's fourteenth amendment was interpreted to give Americans a right to privacy, hence a woman's right to choose abortion. The judiciary is theoretically bound by the constitution, much as legislative bodies are. In most countries judges may only interpret the constitution and all other laws. But in common law countries, where matters are not constitutional, the judiciary may also create law under the doctrine of precedent. On the other hand, the UK, Finland and New Zealand still assert the ideal of parliamentary sovereignty, whereby the unelected judiciary may not overturn law passed by a democratic legislature.


Prominent examples of legislatures are the Houses of Parliament in London, the Congress in Washington D.C., the Bundestag in Berlin, the Duma in Moscow and the Assemblée nationale in Paris. By the principle of representative government people vote for politicians to carry out their wishes. Although countries like Israel, Greece, Sweden and China are unicameral, most countries are bicameral, meaning they have two separately appointed legislative houses. In the 'lower house' politicians are elected to represent smaller constituencies. The 'upper house' is usually elected to represent states in a federal system (as in Australia, Germany or the U.S.A.) or different voting configuration in a unitary system (as in France). In the United Kingdom the upper house is appointed by the government as a house of review. One criticism of bicameral systems with two elected chambers is that the upper and lower houses may simply mirror one another. The traditional justification of bicameralism is that an upper chamber acts as a house of review. This can minimise arbitrariness and injustice in governmental action.
To pass legislation, a majority of Members of Parliament must vote for a bill (proposed law) in each house. Normally there will be several readings and amendments proposed by the different political factions. If a country has an entrenched constitution, a special majority for changes to the constitution will be required, making changes to the law more difficult. A government usually leads the process, which can be formed from Members of Parliament (e.g. the UK or Germany). But in a presidential system, an executive appoints a cabinet to govern from his or her political allies whether or not they are elected (e.g. the U.S.A. or Brazil), and the legislature's role is reduced to either ratification or veto.


The executive in a legal system refers to the government's centre of political authority.
One major model is the parliamentary systems, found in such countries as the Britain, Italy, Germany, India, and Japan. In this system, the executive as well as the cabinet are elected into and drawn from the parliament or other legislature, and are directly accountable to legislature rather than the people. This executive, often termed a prime minister, is the head of government, and serves while holding the confidence of the legislature.
Parliamentary systems are marked by a head of state (separate from the head of government), who lacks formal political power but symbolically enacts laws and acts as a representative of the nation. The head of state is sometimes appointed (the German president), sometimes hereditary (the British monarch) and sometimes elected by popular vote (the Austrian president).
The other major model is the presidential system, found in such countries as France, the United States, and Russia. Under this system, the the executive branch is separate from the legislature and directly accountable to the electorate rather than the legislature. In presidential systems, the executive (often called the president) is both the head of state and head of government.
A semi-presidential system melds aspects of both parliamentary and presidential systems.
The role of the executive varies from country to country. Usually the executive is responsible for initiating or propose the majority of legislation (that is, setting a legislative agenda). In presidential systems, the executive often has the power to veto legislation. Most executives in both systems are responsible for
Ministers or other officials head a country's public offices, such as a foreign ministry or interior ministry. The election of a different executive is therefore capable of revolutionizing an entire country's approach to government.

Military and police

The military and police are sometimes referred to as "the long and strong arm of the law". While military organizations have existed as long as governments themselves, a standing police force is relatively modern. Mediæval England's system of traveling criminal courts, or assizes used show trials and public executions to instill communities with fear and keep them under control. The first modern police were probably those in 17th century Paris, in the court of Louis XIV, although the Paris Prefecture of Police claim they were the world's first uniformed policemen. In 1829, after the French Revolution and Napoleon's dictatorship, a government decree created the first uniformed policemen in Paris and all other French cities, known as sergents de ville ("city sergeants"). In Britain, the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 was passed by Parliament under Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, founding the London Metropolitan Police.
Sociologist Max Weber famously argued that the state is that which controls the legitimate monopoly of the means of violence. The military and police carry out enforcement at the request of the government or the courts. The term failed state is used where the police and military no longer control security and order and society moves into anarchy, the absence of government.


The word "bureaucracy" derives from the French for "office" (bureau) and Ancient Greek for "power" (kratos). Like the military and police, all of a legal system's government servants and bodies that make up the bureaucracy carry out the directives of the executive. One of the earliest references to the concept was made by Baron de Grimm, a German author who lived in France. In 1765 he wrote,
"The real spirit of the laws in France is that bureaucracy of which the late Monsieur de Gournay used to complain so greatly; here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist."
Cynicism over "officialdom" is still common, and the workings of public servants is typically contrasted to private enterprise motivated by profit. In fact private companies, especially large ones, also have bureaucracies. Negative perceptions of "red tape" aside, public services such as schooling, health care, policing or public transport are a crucial state function making public bureaucratic action the locus of government power. Weber wrote that the typical characteristics of modern bureaucracy are that officials define its mission, the scope of work is bound by rules, management is composed of career experts, who manage top down, communicating through writing and binding public servants' discretion with rules.

Legal profession

Lawyers give their clients advice about their legal rights and duties, and represent them in court. As the European Court of Human Rights has stated, the law should be adequately accessible to everyone and people should be able to foresee how the law affects them. In order to maintain professionalism, the practice of law is typically overseen by either a government or independent regulating body such as a bar association, bar council or law society. An aspiring practitioner must be certified by the regulating body before undertaking his practice. This usually entails a two or three year programme at a university faculty of law or a law school, earning the student a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Civil Law or a Juris Doctor degree. This course of study is followed by an entrance examination (e.g. admission to the bar). Some countries require a further vocational qualification before a person is permitted to practice law. For those wishing to become a barrister a year's pupillage under the oversight of an experienced barrister. Beyond the requirements for legal practice higher academic degrees may be pursued. Examples include a Master of Laws, a Master of Legal Studies or a Doctor of Laws.
Once accredited, a lawyer will often work in a law firm, in a chambers as a sole practitioner, in a government post or in a private corporation as an internal counsel. In addition a lawyer may become a legal researcher who provides on-demand legal research through a commercial service or through freelance work. Many people trained in law put their skills to use outside the legal field entirely. Significant to the practice of law in the common law tradition is the legal research to determine the current state of the law. This usually entails exploring case-law reports, legal periodicals and legislation. Law practice also involves drafting documents such as court pleadings, persuasive briefs, contracts, or wills and trusts. Negotiation and dispute resolution skills are also important to legal practice, depending on the field.

Civil society

The term "civil society" dates back to British philosopher John Locke. He saw civil society as people who have "a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them." German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel also distinguished the "state" from "civil society" (Zivilgesellschaft) in Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Hegel believed that civil society and the state were polar opposites, within the scheme of his dialectic theory of history. Civil society is necessarily a source of law, by being the basis from which people form opinions and lobby for what they believe law should be. As Australian barrister and author Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote of international law,
"one of its primary modern sources is found in the responses of ordinary men and women, and of the non-governmental organizations which many of them support, to the human rights abuses they see on the television screen in their living rooms."
Freedom of speech, freedom of association and many other individual rights allow people to meet together, discuss, criticise and hold to account their governments, from which the basis of a deliberative democracy is formed. The more people are involved with, concerned by and capable of changing how political power is exercised over their lives, the more acceptable and legitimate the law becomes to the people. Developed political parties, debating clubs, trade unions, impartial media, business and charities are all part of a healthy civil society.



Printed sources

law in Afrikaans: Reg
law in Arabic: قانون
law in Aragonese: Dreito
law in Asturian: Drechu
law in Bengali: আইন
law in Bashkir: Хоҡуҡ
law in Bosnian: Pravo
law in Breton: Gwir (lezenn)
law in Bulgarian: Право
law in Catalan: Dret
law in Cebuano: Pamalaod
law in Czech: Právo
law in Corsican: Drittu
law in Welsh: Cyfraith
law in Danish: Jura
law in German: Recht
law in Modern Greek (1453-): Δίκαιο
law in Spanish: Derecho
law in Esperanto: Juro
law in Persian: حقوق (قانونی)
law in French: Droit
law in Western Frisian: Rjocht
law in Irish: Dlí
law in Manx: Leigh
law in Galician: Dereito
law in Classical Chinese: 法律
law in Korean: 법
law in Hindi: विधि
law in Croatian: Pravo
law in Ido: Yuro
law in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Derecto
law in Icelandic: Lög
law in Italian: Diritto
law in Hebrew: משפטים
law in Ladino: Dirito
law in Latin: Ius
law in Latvian: Likums
law in Lithuanian: teisė
law in Limburgan: Rech
law in Lojban: flalu
law in Hungarian: Jog
law in Macedonian: Право
law in Maori: Ture
law in Malay (macrolanguage): Undang-undang
law in Dutch: Recht
law in Japanese: 法 (法学)
law in Norwegian: Rettsvitenskap
law in Narom: Loué
law in Polish: Prawo
law in Portuguese: Direito
law in Romanian: Drept
law in Russian: Право
law in Albanian: Ligji
law in Simple English: Law
law in Slovak: Právo
law in Slovenian: Pravo
law in Finnish: Laki
law in Swedish: Juridik
law in Tagalog: Batas
law in Tamil: சட்டம்
law in Thai: กฎหมาย
law in Vietnamese: Luật pháp
law in Turkish: Hukuk
law in Ukrainian: Право
law in Urdu: قانون
law in Yiddish: געזעץ
law in Contenese: 法律
law in Chinese: 法律

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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