Understanding the Law


Law is a set of rules or codes that a group or society (or a represented majority) adopts and agrees to abide by, as a basis for their interactions. It regulates behaviour, sets standards and governs social behaviour, whilst protecting liberties and rights and resolving disputes.

The law shapes politics, economics and history in many ways and acts as a mediator of relations between people. It is complex from a methodological point of view, being both normative and prescriptive (saying what people ought to do or not do), and based on empirical (like gravity) and even sociological research (such as the law of supply and demand in economics).

A wide range of laws exist: laws can be legislative and written; they can be customary and unwritten; they can apply to specific groups or individuals or to all of the public. The law is often a product of debate and political negotiation. Laws can also have religious and ethical bases.

The legal system is diverse, with civil law systems governing most of the world. In these systems, the law is largely legislative, with judges filling in gaps with interpretation and creative jurisprudence. There are also common law systems, in which judge-made precedent forms the basis of much of the case law.

A common way of understanding the law is in terms of jurisdiction, which describes the legal authority to hear a case. Courts have concurrent jurisdiction, meaning that a single court can decide a dispute that touches on issues in several states or countries. The plaintiff initially decides where the case will be heard, but the defendant can ask for a change of jurisdiction if he or she thinks that it would improve his or her chances of winning the case.

Other important concepts include arraignment, which is the formal process in which an accused person is brought into court and told of the charges against him or her. The judge may allow the accused to make a plea before the trial begins, such as guilty or not guilty.

An important academic approach to law is that of the neo-realist school, which sees it as a complex and socially constructed phenomenon with an empirical basis, and seeks to analyse its workings, effects and development. The neo-realists contrast their analysis of law with the more theological and moralising orientation of’sociological jurisprudence’.