Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Law Definition:

Rules of conduct approved and enforced by the government of and over a certain territory (eg. the 'laws' of Australia).

Related Terms: Regulation, Statutes, Lex Scripta, Act, Custom, Common Law, Civil Law, Islamic Law, Justice, Rule of Law, Substantive Law, Positive Law

Stripped of the necessity of an enforcement agency (government), the term law has been defined, simply, as:

“.... a mechanism for facilitating and regulating interaction between autonomous entities."1

In The Science of Law (1885) British jurist Sheldon Amos wrote:

"A law is ... a command proceeding from the supreme political authority of a state, and addressed to the persons who are subjects of that authority."

William Blackstone defined law as:

"A rule of ... conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong."

Violation of these rules could lead to enforcement, government reaction such as imprisonment or fine, or private action such as a legal judgment against the offender obtained by the person injured by the action prohibited by law.

Synonymous to act or statute although in common usage, "law" refers not only to legislation or statutes but also to the body of unwritten law in those states which recognize common law.

lawHarold Joseph Berman wrote in The Interaction of Law and Religion (1974):

"Once law is understood as an active, living human process, then it is seen to involve - just as religion involves - man's whole being, including his dreams, his passions, his ultimate concerns.

"The principal ways in which law channels and communicates (these) trans-rational values are fourfold. First, through ritual, that is, ceremonial procedures which symbolize the objectivity of law. Second, through tradition, that is, language and practices handed down from the past which symbolize the ongoingness of law. Third, through authority, that is, the reliance upon written or spoken sources of law which are considered to be decisive in themselves and which symbolize the binding power of law. Fourth, through universality, that is, the claim to embody universally valid concepts or insights which symbolize the law's connection with all embracing truth. These four elements - ritual, tradition, authority and universality - are present in all legal systems, just as they are present in all religions."

American judge Benjamin Cardozo (1870-1932) said that "the final cause of law is the welfare of society".

Common law theorists will be familiar with these three Latin maxims of the Roman law:

  • Jus est ars boni et aequi - The law is the science of what is good and just;
  • Legum denique idcirco omnes servi sumus, ut liberi esse possimus: We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free; and
  • Silent enim leges inter arma: The laws are silent amidst the clash of arms.

Also, from Tao of Politics:

"A lost nation is not one which lacks a ruler, but one that lacks law. Distortion of law does not mean there is no law. It means there is law but it is not applied. Thus, it is as if there is no law."

Judicially, in reference mostly to statutes, the New York Court of Appeal, in 1922, the relevant case being Koenig v Flynn, 258 NY 292 (1932):

"The legislative act was to be a direction to the people of the State demanding certain things to be done, fixing a time, a place, and a manner which had to be followed. From the Legislature was to come a mandate, the disobedience of which would result in penalties or legal consequences....

"From time immemorial this has been done by a law according to the forms existing at the time. That which must be obeyed and followed by citizens subject to sanctions or legal consequences is a law. Such a direction must take the form of law."

Tongue in cheek, in The Comic Blackstone written by Gilbert Beckett, published in 1846:

"Law, in its general sense, signifies a rule of human action, whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational; and perhaps there is nothing more inhuman or irrational than an action at law. We talk of the law of motion, as when one man springs towards another and knocks him down; or the law of gravitation, in obedience to which the person struck falls to the earth.

"If we descend from animal to vegetable life, we shall find the latter acting in conformity with laws of its own. The ordinary cabbage, from its first entering an appearance on the bed to its being finally taken in execution and thrust into the pot for boiling, is governed by the common law of nature.

"Man, as we are all aware, is a creature endowed with reason and free will: but when he goes to law as plaintiff, his reason seems to have deserted him : while, if he stands in the position of defendant, it is generally against his free will; and thus, that " noblest of animals," Man, is in a very ignoble predicament.

"Justinian has reduced the principles of law to three; 1st, that we should live honestly; 2ndly, that we should hurt nobody; and 3rdly, that we should give every one his due."

See, also, the legal definition of the rule of law and the legal definition of anarchy.


  • NOTE 1: Adams, Wendy A., Human Subjects and Animal Objects: Animals as Other in Law, 3 J. Animal L. & Ethics 29 (2009)

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