What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules or principles that governs the behaviour of individuals and organizations in society. It is a complex field of study with various methods and a rich tradition, and the precise definition of its meaning remains a matter of debate.

Historically, law was the system of customary rules that governments and social organisations promulgated to regulate their subjects’ conduct in the interests of public order, safety, and welfare. It has since evolved into an academic discipline in its own right, which combines elements of philosophy, history, sociology, and economics to examine how legal systems develop, change, and affect human behaviour and societies.

In contrast to other sciences, law is normative rather than descriptive or causal, and has a prescriptive character, namely it explains how a particular situation or process should proceed, rather than what it actually is (in the same way as a law of gravity or a law of supply and demand in economics).

The distinction between claims, privileges, powers, and immunities is one of the key features of Hohfeldian theory. The first-order norms (claims, privileges, powers) determine what a party’s actions may or should be in relation to other parties, while the second-order norms (immunities) indicate whether a party can or cannot do those things.

Rights are typically for or in some sense entitle right-holders, such as a claim-right to inherit property (as opposed to a claim-immunity), whereas power is conditioned on certain states of affairs, so that it vests only when the factual condition is met. In a similar fashion, immunity is conditioned on the existence of other duties correlating to it, so that it vests only when those duties are satisfied.

While many Hohfeldian norms exhibit active and passive forms, some are genuinely neutral in that they can be enjoyed without necessarily entitlering right-holders to them (Lyons 1970; Sumner 1987: 29-31). Consider the case of a law granting the surviving children of a deceased estate a legal right against their executor for a portion of the estate, until all debts have been paid and existing claims have been satisfied.

There are other cases, however, where stand-alone privileges hardly qualify as rights, such as an immunity from inheritance of property based on gender, or an immunity from state persecution of the privilege-holder. In addition, there are other cases, such as diplomatic or legislative immunity, where the privilege-holder’s rights are only binding for a limited subset of right-holders.

Finally, there is the problem of retro-activity. This occurs when legal norms whose validity depends on the presence of other legal norms or sources of law become invalid by impairing their status as legally valid.

The rule of law is the principle that governments and their representatives are accountable to the people, that their decisions and policies are based on clear principles, and that they are enforceable through the courts. Its four universal principles include impartiality, transparency, equality and fairness, and access to justice.