The Role of Law
Law is a set of rules and principles created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to govern human activity and relationships. Its precise definition is a longstanding and controversial topic of debate among scholars and lay people alike. The study of law involves a broad range of disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, political science, and economics. A career in law can be a highly rewarding one for those interested in defending rights, securing justice, and helping to keep society stable.
Disputes are unavoidable in any society, as members of a particular community often have differing needs, wants, values, and views. Law provides a formal mechanism for resolving these disputes through the courts.
The objective of law is to ensure some semblance of order in society by setting minimum standards and punishing deviations from these standards. Thus, for example, certain acts, such as assaulting someone, are crimes because they violate the law’s requirement that citizens not hurt each other. The law also prevents squabbles between private individuals by establishing property rights and providing a means for settling disputes through the court system.
Law can be categorized as either natural or moral, depending on whether it is the result of natural events and actions or the will of a deity. Natural laws are derived from human nature, while moral laws are the result of ethical considerations and philosophical notions like fairness and justice.
Those who support the natural law view the role of law as being to protect and uphold basic individual freedoms and civil liberties. Others see the law as a tool to achieve social justice. Social justice is based on two concepts: distributive justice, which seeks to ensure that social benefits are evenly distributed, and corrective justice, which aims to rectify injustices (Hohfeld 1919: 50-57).
The modern legal system is generally viewed as being composed of formal and informal sources of law. Formal sources of law are statutes or legislation and judicial precedents, which judges are bound to follow when making rulings in cases. Informal sources of law include professional opinions, customs, foreign judgements, and morality.
Blackstone’s view of the role of law was that judges are the “depositories and guardians of the common law.” His opinion was that judges must always interpret the law in a way that is consistent with the natural and moral laws. This was known as the rule of stare decisis, which meant that judges must follow previous decisions in similar circumstances.
The societal function of law is to serve various purposes, such as keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting minorities against majorities, and promoting social change. Some systems of law accomplish this more successfully than others. For example, an authoritarian government might keep the peace but oppress minorities and promote a false sense of stability, while a democratic government might maintain the peace and promote genuine social progress.