The Sources of Law


Law is a system of rules established by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and protect rights and liberties. Law includes both formal laws (such as statutes, regulations, and treaties) and informal codes of conduct or understandings that bind people to each other in certain ways. Laws are used for the purpose of enforcing social order and maintaining peace, as well as to resolve disputes. Law is an important topic of scholarly inquiry, and it offers a rich field for study in legal history, philosophy, sociology, and economic analysis.

Legal systems vary widely across the globe, and law reflects many cultural and historical influences. It is also a source of debate on philosophical questions concerning fairness, equality, and justice.

The most common law systems are those of constitutional states, parliamentary democracies, and federations, as well as those of the European Union. In constitutional states, the source of law is a constitution or a set of statutes and regulations enacted by a legislative body. In parliamentary democracies, the authority of law is found in the elected parliament. In federations, the source of law is a central or regional government.

Other sources of law include traditional custom and the decisions of judges and barristers, who are called “jurists”. In common law societies, the decisions of courts are recognized as authoritative and bind other lower courts by the principle of stare decisis. This is a distinctive feature of this type of law. In contrast, in civil law societies, legislative statutes and formal decisions of the higher courts are the principal sources of law.

The four main functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. The latter function is most commonly addressed by criminal law, which penalizes people for activities that threaten the social fabric and is the most controversial element of any legal system. Civil law governs interactions between private parties, such as contract law, tort law, and property law.

In addition to its role in regulating commerce, law has a major impact on people’s daily lives by limiting their freedoms and controlling their actions. The extent of this influence varies from one society to another, but is typically considerable.

Moreover, people value the Rule of Law for reasons other than its formalistic purposes. In some cases, it mitigates the asymmetry between ruler and ruled that is necessarily part of political life, making power less arbitrary, impersonal, peremptory and coercive. In other cases, it binds the ruler to the governed and creates what Max Weber described as a bond of reciprocity that constrains both sides. This is especially important where a government has substantial military, police, or bureaucratic powers over the lives of ordinary citizens. In these instances, it is crucial that core human and procedural rights are enshrined in law. This is best accomplished through transparency, accountability, and a free press.