Law is a body of rules that a society or government develops and enforces in order to deal with crime, business agreements, social relationships and property. It also refers to the profession of lawyers, judges and other legal officials.
There are many different kinds of law, ranging from criminal law to civil law to administrative law and to international law. Each of these areas covers a specific area of human activity, such as the rights of citizens or the responsibilities of corporations.
The precise definition of law varies by context and era, but it generally comprises precepts which a group of people decides are important for the community as a whole and must be followed in the course of conducting its affairs. It also encompasses the procedures by which the rules are enacted and executed, and the institutions through which they are enforced. It is the combination of these aspects that gives law its moral standing.
Laws should be accessible and understandable. This implies that they should be publicly promulgated in advance and that people can study them, internalize them, use them as a framework for planning their lives and expectations and settling disputes with others, and protect themselves against arbitrary abuses of public or private power. It also entails that the laws are sufficiently stable to allow for their ordinary practical application, and that the institutions through which they operate have adequate accountability, transparency and integrity. These features are sometimes referred to as the ‘rule of law’, but they are more broadly the formal characteristics that define the quality of a legal system: generality; publicity; prospectivity; intelligibility; consistency; practicability; and stability.
These principles are often enshrined in the constitutions and other legislative documents of countries and regions around the world. Some of them are rooted in the historical heritage of European states, though these days they are also embraced by a growing number of non-European nations, particularly those which were historically colonies of Europe.
A nation’s legal system serves many purposes, including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting minorities from majorities, and promoting social justice and orderly social change. However, some legal systems serve these goals more effectively than others. For example, an authoritarian state may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but it is also likely to oppress minorities or other political opponents, and it is very difficult to achieve the sort of social change promoted by the rule of law in such regimes.
The rule of law is not a panacea, but it has been shown to be an effective way of managing the challenges of a rapidly changing and globalizing world. As more and more countries adopt legal systems based on the Rule of Law, we can look forward to an increasingly prosperous and secure future. By contrast, a world in which governments rule arbitrarily and without respect for the law of the land will be dangerous and unstable. Those who support the Rule of Law are therefore right to emphasize its importance.