The Concept of Law


Law is a system of norms formally promulgated as public knowledge to regulate human behavior and to give people a common framework for their plans and expectations and for settling disputes with others. It requires the independence of legal institutions, the transparency of government business and the integrity of legal procedures. It also requires that no one person is above the law, that laws are clear and fair, and that all persons have a say in creating their own rules. It is a matter of longstanding debate whether the formal principles of what is called the Rule of Law are adequate to achieve these goals.

For some scholars, the Rule of Law requires that laws be general in character and aimed at the community as a whole rather than at particular individuals. This principle of generality is meant to avoid invidious discrimination. It also embodies a deeper idea that law is a mode of governing people that treats them as beings capable of explaining themselves. The formal requirement of dignity is a companion principle to Fuller’s inner morality of law, capturing the sense that people must be heard as they present their points of view about how norms should be applied to them in particular circumstances.

In addition, the Rule of Law imposes constraints on official discretion in enforcing laws. Many scholars see this as a critical aspect of the Rule of Law that ensures no individual or group of individuals is above the law. The framers of the Constitution, for example, understood that this could be achieved by separating powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government. This separation of powers helps to ensure that no single branch has the power to override any other.

The concept of Law is broad and complex, encompassing many aspects of social life. For some, it refers to a set of social or governmental norms that regulate human behavior and provide a common framework for planning and conducting business, while for others, the term law is synonymous with the legal system of a nation. The precise definition of law is a matter of longstanding debate. A nation’s legal system can serve many different purposes, such as maintaining peace and the status quo, protecting minority rights against majorities, preventing social change, or providing orderly political reform. Some legal systems are more effective at serving these different functions than others. The defining features of a particular national legal system are a matter of historical tradition and cultural heritage. It is impossible to understand modern views of the Rule of Law without understanding that historical legacy.