law | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction to Criminal Justice / Law

Law is a system of rules established and enforced by a society to regulate behavior, maintain order, and deliver justice.

According to the Supreme Court of the United States, the law is “…the rules of action or conduct duly prescribed by controlling authority, and having binding legal force; including valid municipal ordinance as well as statutes.”

The concept of law is a foundation upon which civilizations are built, yet it is often a topic of complexity and abstract contemplation. At its most fundamental, it can be defined as a system of rules created and enforced by a societal or governmental entity to regulate behavior. It’s a set of guidelines and regulations established to maintain order and fairness, define crimes, resolve disputes, and protect citizens’ rights within a society.

Understanding the nature and function of law is an essential step in grasping the mechanisms of our society and our roles within it. For students interested in criminal justice, it becomes even more important. Law, in this context, is not just a list of do’s and don’ts; it’s a pivotal part of our social fabric, shaping and being shaped by societal norms, values, and expectations. Furthermore, it lays the groundwork for criminal justice, defining what constitutes a crime, guiding the legal processes, and outlining the responsibilities of various criminal justice roles.

This article aims to delve into the intriguing world of law, dissecting its characteristics, sources, and types under the umbrella of the ‘Nature of Law.’ Following that, we will explore the ‘Function of Law,’ discussing how it helps maintain order, protects rights, promotes social justice, and regulates societal behaviors. We’ll also touch on the dynamic relationship between it and society, reflecting on how societal values and changes influence it and vice versa. Lastly, we will bring our lens to the ‘Law and the Criminal Justice System,’ highlighting the vital role within this system.

By the end of this article, you will have a more robust grasp of the law’s depth and breadth and its instrumental role in shaping our society and our criminal justice system. Our goal is not just to define it but to illuminate its integral connection to our everyday lives and its profound impact on society’s structure and functioning.

The Nature of Law

Law as a System

Understanding the nature of it first requires grasping it as a system. A legal system is an overarching framework that forms the backbone of any society. It is a body of rules and regulations that govern behavior and interactions within a society and are upheld by institutions designed to enforce them.

There are several characteristics that define legal systems. Firstly, they provide a formal process for creating laws, usually through a legislative body. Secondly, they offer a mechanism to interpret and apply it, typically through a judicial system. Thirdly, they outline a method of enforcing laws, often through law enforcement agencies, and penalties for violations. And lastly, they allow for dispute resolution, providing a platform for parties to resolve disagreements under the law’s guidance.

Sources of Law

The rules and principles that form the basis of a legal system come from various sources. One of the primary sources is statutory law, which is created by a legislative body such as a parliament or Congress. These are often written and codified, providing clear rules for society to follow.

Another source is common law, derived from judicial decisions over time. Unlike statutory law, this is shaped by precedents – the decisions made in previous cases, which guide the decisions in future similar cases.

Administrative regulations generated by government agencies constitute another significant source of law. These rules govern the operation of various societal sectors like environment, health, and safety.

Constitutional law, derived from a country’s constitution, establishes the fundamental principles of a state, defining the structure of government and the rights and freedoms of the citizens.

International law, which regulates the conduct between nations, is another source. It includes treaties, agreements, and conventions agreed upon by different nations.

Types of Law

It can be categorized into various types based on several factors. Firstly, it is divided into civil and criminal. Civil law pertains to disputes between individuals or entities, such as contract disputes or property issues. In contrast, criminal law relates to actions that harm or threaten society, like theft or murder.

They can also be classified as public or private. Public law involves matters that affect society as a whole, such as constitutional law and criminal law. In contrast, private law deals with disputes between private individuals or organizations, like family and contracts.

Finally, they are categorized as substantive or procedural. Substantive defines the rights, duties, and liabilities of individuals and entities, while procedural outlines the methods and processes for enforcing these rights and obligations.

Legal Principles

There are several core principles that underpin any legal system. The rule of law, for example, implies that everyone, including the government, is subject to the law, ensuring fairness and equality. It opposes the idea of arbitrary power, promoting consistency and predictability.

Legal fairness, another crucial principle, emphasizes that laws should be just and their application should be unbiased. It involves providing equal opportunity for all parties in a dispute to present their case and ensuring that judgments are based on evidence.

The presumption of innocence is a further critical principle, particularly in criminal law. It maintains that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. This principle safeguards individuals from wrongful convictions, placing the burden of proof on the prosecution.

The nature of it can be understood through the lens of its structure as a system, its sources, its types, and its underlying principles. Each aspect offers a unique perspective, together forming a comprehensive picture of what it entails.

The Function of Law

Maintaining Order

One of the primary functions is to maintain order in society. It sets boundaries that help prevent conflict and disorder. They define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, thereby reducing the potential for personal disputes and social conflict.

Moreover, it plays a pivotal role in managing conflict when it does arise. It offers a structured and peaceful platform for conflict resolution, ensuring disagreements are resolved fairly and orderly, preventing escalation into violence.

Another crucial function in maintaining order is deterrence. By establishing penalties for unlawful behavior, it aims to discourage individuals from committing such acts. The concept of deterrence rests on the belief that the fear of punishment can prevent potential offenders from committing crimes, thereby promoting order and safety in society.

Protecting Rights and Freedoms

It also plays a critical role in protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals. Human rights refer to the basic rights and freedoms to which all individuals are entitled. These can include the right to life, liberty, and security; the right to freedom of expression and religion; and the right to work and education. Laws often enshrine these rights, offering protections against infringement.

Property rights are another important area of protection. They establish the rules for ownership, use, and transfer of property, both tangible (like land or vehicles) and intangible (like intellectual property or stocks). By defining these rights, the law provides security and certainty for property owners and fosters economic growth.

Promoting Social Justice

Laws are instrumental in promoting social justice and equality. They can be designed to protect marginalized and disadvantaged groups, prohibit discrimination, and ensure equitable access to resources and opportunities. Anti-discrimination laws and social welfare laws are examples of how law can promote social justice.

Law also plays a significant role in social change. Over time, societal attitudes and values evolve, and laws often reflect and facilitate these changes. For instance, laws have been crucial in advancing civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, reflecting changing societal values and furthering the cause of social justice.

Regulating Society

Beyond maintaining order and protecting rights, law serves as a critical tool for regulating society. Laws govern a wide range of social interactions and behaviors, from traffic rules that regulate how we drive to criminal laws that dictate what actions are considered crimes.

The law also plays a significant role in regulating economic activities. Commercial laws govern business practices, competition, and trade, while labor laws regulate employer-employee relationships. Tax laws dictate how resources are collected from the public for government expenditure. By establishing rules for these economic interactions, the law facilitates trade, protects consumers and workers, and promotes economic stability.

The functions of law are diverse and integral to the smooth operation of society. By maintaining order, protecting rights and freedoms, promoting social justice, and regulating society, the law creates a structured, fair, and just social framework. Understanding these functions can help us appreciate the role of law in shaping our society and guiding our behaviors.

The Relationship between Law and Society

Law as a Reflection of Societal Values

The law is not created in isolation. Instead, it is inherently a reflection of the values, beliefs, and norms of the society that creates it. These societal values shape the content and direction of laws. For instance, a society that values individual freedom may have laws that emphasize civil liberties, while a society that prioritizes community welfare may enact laws with a stronger focus on social responsibility.

In many ways, the law serves as a mirror, reflecting the values and standards that society deems important. It encapsulates the collective morals and ethics that society holds. These can include fundamental principles such as fairness, justice, and respect for human rights. Laws related to criminal justice, for example, often reflect societal attitudes towards punishment, rehabilitation, and societal protection.

The Impact of Societal Change on Law

Just as it reflects societal values, it is also influenced by changes in society. As societies evolve, their norms, attitudes, and beliefs change, and this societal change often leads to corresponding changes.

Historically, societal change has been a driving force for legal reform. The civil rights movement in the United States, for example, led to significant changes in laws related to racial discrimination. Similarly, changing attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights have resulted in laws that recognize same-sex marriage and protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

However, it’s important to note that the relationship between societal change and law is complex. While societal change can lead to legal change, the process is often not straightforward and may involve significant political and legal battles. Moreover, while it can change in response to societal change, it can also resist change, especially when existing laws are deeply entrenched.

The Role in Shaping Societal Norms

While it is influenced by society, it also plays a powerful role in shaping societal norms. It can establish standards of behavior that society is expected to follow, and over time, these legal standards can become ingrained as societal norms.

For instance, laws prohibiting discrimination based on race or gender send a strong message about the kinds of behavior that are acceptable in society. Over time, these legal prohibitions can shape societal attitudes, leading to a decrease in discriminatory behavior and a change in societal norms.

Moreover, it can play a role in shaping societal norms by signaling the society’s values and priorities. Laws related to environmental protection, for example, can signal the importance of sustainability, influencing societal attitudes towards the environment and encouraging more sustainable behaviors.

The relationship between law and society is dynamic and reciprocal. It reflects societal values and changes in response to societal change and plays a role in shaping societal norms. This relationship underscores the powerful role in both reflecting and shaping society. Understanding this relationship is key to appreciating the complexities of law and its central role in our social world.

The Law and the Criminal Justice System

The Role in Defining Crime

It plays an instrumental role in the criminal justice system, particularly in defining what constitutes a crime. In essence, a crime is defined as an act or omission that violates a law which results in a punishment. This definition underscores its centrality of it in setting the parameters of criminal behavior.

The statutory law, created by the legislature, typically outlines what constitutes a crime, specifying the elements that must be present for an act to be considered a crime. These laws range widely, covering acts from theft to murder, and each offense is carefully defined to ensure clarity and precision.

This legal definition of crime is essential because it provides a clear standard for criminal behavior. It allows individuals to know in advance what conduct is criminal, ensuring that people have fair warning of the behavior that could lead to criminal punishment.

How the Law Guides the Criminal Justice Process

It not only defines crime but also dictates the procedures that must be followed in the criminal justice process. This encompasses everything from the initial investigation and arrest by law enforcement to the trial process and eventual sentencing and punishment.

For example, it outlines the rights of individuals suspected or accused of crimes, such as the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. It sets rules for law enforcement, such as the requirement to have a warrant for searches or the need for probable cause for arrests. It also governs the court process, setting rules for evidence, trial procedures, and sentencing guidelines.

This function ensures that the criminal justice process is fair, consistent, and predictable. It safeguards the rights of accused individuals, maintains the integrity of the criminal justice process, and ensures that justice is served.

The Importance of Law in the Roles of Police, Courts, and Corrections

It plays a critical role in guiding the roles and responsibilities of key institutions within the criminal justice system – the police, the courts, and corrections.

For police, it provides a framework for their duties and powers, including the power to arrest, search, and detain suspects. It also sets limits on these powers to protect individual rights, requiring police to act within the confines of the law.

In the courts, the law outlines the procedures for conducting trials and hearings, ensuring that defendants have a fair trial. It provides guidelines for judges to interpret and apply the law, make rulings, and determine appropriate sentences.

In corrections, it sets the parameters for the treatment of convicted individuals, outlining their rights and dictating the terms for parole and probation. Laws also define the operation of correctional facilities, setting standards for conditions and practices to ensure they meet acceptable levels of decency and fairness.

In each of these roles, it serves as a guidepost, providing structure, setting boundaries, and promoting fairness and justice. It ensures that the actions of these institutions align with societal values, contributes to the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, and underscores the rule of law.

It is inextricably linked with the criminal justice system. It defines crime, guides the criminal justice process, and shapes the roles and operations of key criminal justice institutions. Understanding this connection is fundamental for anyone seeking to grasp the workings of the criminal justice system and the vital role of law within it.


Understanding the nature and function of law is a crucial starting point for anyone studying criminal justice. This article has explored the many facets of it, demonstrating its complexity, depth, and profound influence on society and the criminal justice system.

We have seen that law operates as a system, originating from various sources and taking numerous forms, from civil to criminal, public to private, substantive to procedural. Key legal principles such as the rule of law, legal fairness, and the presumption of innocence underpin the system, reinforcing its integrity and justice.

The functions are manifold. Law maintains order, safeguards rights and freedoms, promotes social justice, and regulates societal behavior and interactions. These functions illustrate the powerful role in shaping our social world.

The relationship between law and society is dynamic and reciprocal. It reflects societal values, changes in response to societal change, and shapes societal norms. In the criminal justice system, it defines crime, guides the criminal justice process, and shapes the roles of key institutions.

An understanding of the nature and function of law is fundamental to the study of criminal justice. It helps to frame the rules and principles that govern behavior, the processes for dealing with crime, and the roles of criminal justice institutions. This knowledge provides a foundation for a deeper exploration of criminal justice topics.

However, our journey into law does not end here. This article only scratches the surface of a vast and complex field. I encourage you to delve deeper into the study of it, explore its intricacies, and continue to develop your understanding.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/29/2023

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