The Nature and Meaning of Law


Law is an important part of everyday life in nation-states and shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It serves four primary functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Different legal systems serve these purposes in very different ways. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it often oppresses minorities or fails to provide social justice. In contrast, democratic governments are more likely to promote the rule of law as a means for encouraging orderly social change.

Law has multiple facets and branches, ranging from contract and administrative law to family and criminal law. Commercial law, for instance, focuses on issues like property ownership and the transfer of ownership, whereas tax law is concerned with paying and reporting business and personal income taxes. Law also has to do with the responsibilities and duties of various government offices. Procedural law, for instance, relates to the rules that courts must follow as they conduct trials and appeals. Evidence law explains which materials are admissible in court for a case to be built.

The nature and meaning of law is subject to considerable controversy, which largely revolves around the role of coercion in the operation of law. For example, Hans Kelsen argued that the monopolization of violence is one of the most important functions of law, while twentieth-century legal positivists like H.L.A Hart and Joseph Raz argued that the coercive aspect of law is much more marginal than their predecessors assumed.

The concept of law is a central topic of philosophical inquiry, including epistemology, political philosophy, ethics and sociology. It is a significant subject for study in law schools, as well as for research in areas such as legal history and economic analysis.

The law is a complex and continually evolving set of concepts, practices and procedures that shape and govern people’s daily lives. Its complexity has fueled scholarly inquiry, from the early work of natural law theorists to more recent developments in legal theory and methodology. Some of these theories and methodologies focus on the way that laws are formed, while others explore how law is enforced and applied. Still others are concerned with law’s relationship to political structures, such as government and power. These relationships are reflected in the articles concerning constitutional law; family law; international law; labour law; maritime law and medical jurisprudence. Other articles examine the relationship of law to economics and society, including law and development; the sociology of law; and legal philosophy. A number of articles address specialized legal topics, such as agency; air law; bankruptcy; carriage of goods; and the law of nations.