What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules and principles that society or government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. It may also refer to the people who work in this system, such as lawyers and judges.

A legal right is a norm that has been codified and recognized by the state as an entitlement, or a right that a person must adhere to if they are to behave in a certain way. Some legal rights are based on natural law, others are a result of social convention, and others are deontological in nature.

The most common type of right is the claim, which gives the right-holder the power to demand that a particular action be taken against someone else. This is referred to as a “demand” theory of rights (Feinberg 1970; 1980: 130-158; 1992: 155).

Some claim-rights are actively exercised, and others are passively enjoyed. The active rights determine what the parties must do, and the passive ones determine what the party can do or cannot do (Sumner 1987: 30-31).

Another type of claim-right is a privilege-right. The privilege-right allows the claim-right holder to exercise certain powers or immunities, without having to actually give those powers or immunities effect (Feinberg 1970; 1980: 134-145; 1992: 154; Darwall 2006: 18-19).

Many claim-rights are conditioned on correlative duties, and so a corresponding duty only vests when the correlative condition is satisfied. This is often called a “vesting-right” or a “conditional-right.”

A law that recognizes a claim-right and does not vest any correlative duty until the factual conditions are met can be considered to be a conditional right. Similarly, a law that grants an individual a right in their estate can be considered to be a conditional estate-right, because the correlative estate-duty only vests once the estate has been settled and debts and claims have been paid (MacCormick 1982: 163).

Other claim-rights are preemptory, or in such a sense that they outweigh even more weightier reasons (Hart 1982: 86; Nozick 1974: 171-173). This can be seen in many legal systems, where the infringement of a legal right is usually deemed to be impermissible if in furtherance of some overall good or utility, even if this good or utility would otherwise not be served by the infringement (Feinberg 1970; 1980: 132-3; 1992: 155).

These claim-rights can be either in rem or in personam. In rem rights, such as property rights, allow for the compensation of the loss of a particular thing back to its owner (e.g., a right in rem against someone for stealing their property).

Private law, on the other hand, is the rule of the people in relation to each other. It settles disputes, and it compensates victims of property theft or other crimes. It covers areas such as contract law, inheritance and criminal law.

Commercial law deals with complex contracts and property, such as bills of exchange, insurance and insolvency laws. These are governed by statutes and courts, including the UK Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the US Uniform Commercial Code.