Law is the set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. The precise nature of the concept varies considerably, but almost all theorists agree that it has four principal functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.
Most laws are made by governments, and they usually punish people for breaking them. For example, if someone breaks the law against stealing, they could be fined or sent to prison. Some laws are based on real-world events, like the fact that objects that are not suspended in air will fall if they are thrown up (this is known as the law of gravity). Others are based on moral values, such as the Bible’s commands to be pious and kind.
John Salmond, a legal scholar renowned for his ideologies on law in the field of jurisprudence, classified the sources of law into two categories: material and formal. The material sources of law are the things that form the content of law – for example, books, case histories and written documents. The formal sources of law are the institutions that provide the formal means for resolving conflicts and disputes – the courts.
The main purpose of law is to ensure justice. This may be interpreted in different ways, but most theorists accept that some level of justice is necessary in any society and that the law is the best way to achieve this. Justice can be distributive, where the law ensures a fair distribution of social benefits among the members of a community, or it can be corrective, where the law seeks to remedy wrongs done to individuals.
Another function of law is to maintain order. This is achieved by regulating the activities of people and institutions, for example ensuring that people do not steal from each other or attack others. The law also protects property, for example by requiring that all goods and services be registered. It can also prevent certain types of conduct from occurring, for example by making it illegal to injure or damage other people’s bodies or belongings.
The neo-realist school of thought on the law sees it as an instrument for harmonizing conflicting groups in a society. This is a view that has its roots in the sociological tradition of Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx, who both believed that societies are hierarchies of competing groups with competing interests. These groups compete for resources and for control of the society, and therefore need to have mechanisms for conflict resolution. The law can be used to achieve this goal by ensuring that all groups are treated fairly and that the interests of the most powerful are represented in the judiciary. This is why the neo-realist school of law has an interest in understanding how power works in societies and how this affects the legal process. For example, it is interested in the question of whether judges are influenced by their own political beliefs and the degree to which they can be objective when hearing cases.