Law is the body of rules and principles that a government or society has developed to deal with crimes, trade, social relations, property, finance and more. It is a system of legal orders that are controlled and enforced by the governing authority, and it can be divided into public law and private law.
A law can help to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect individual rights, promote social justice, and provide for orderly social change. Different legal systems can accomplish these goals better than others.
Common law legal systems are based on decisions by judges or barristers, and are usually written down as statutes. Judicial decisions are binding on future courts to assure that similar cases reach similar results.
Civil law legal systems are based on concepts, categories and rules that are derived from Roman law, but which may be influenced by local customs or culture. These legal systems generally place greater emphasis on individual freedom than common law legal systems, and they are found in about 60% of the world.
There are many different definitions of law, but they all have the same basic function: to regulate human conduct by systematically applying force. Some of the best known definitions are:
John Austin’s utilitarian view suggests that law is a set of commands, backed by threat of sanctions from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience. Natural lawyers on the other hand, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that law reflects essentially moral and unchangeable laws of nature.
Utilitarian and natural law theories of law have been criticized for their lack of a clear understanding of the nature of rights. Some, such as Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall, argue that rights are primarily claim-rights, whereby right-holders demand certain acts from other entities.
Another important aspect of rights is their justification. Legal justification, often involving an antecedent legal norm grounding, determines whether or not a particular legal right is valid.
Some legal rights, such as the rights of the accused in criminal trials or the rights of individuals to challenge government agents, exhibit this justificatory structure more than other rights.
This is especially true in the case of constitutional or fundamental rights, which are commonly couched as limitations on the coercive and punitive powers of government.
Nonetheless, this justificatory structure can be compromised when the common good or a utilitarian ideal overrides the legal right-holder’s interests, agency, dignity, autonomy, control, and liberty.
A third, sometimes more prominent theory of the function of rights is that they serve as bastions of individual right-holders’ interests, agency, dignity, autonomy, control, or liberty even when such interests may be opposed to the public good (Lyons 1982; 1994: 147-176). The idea that legal rights can be used as bastions of these characteristics has been defended by scholars such as Nozick and Dworkin.