Section 1.1:  The Nature of the Law

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

The social and economic stability of any society depends on people treating each other in acceptable and predictable ways. In our modern society, a critical element in the social control of each individual is our system of laws. Because our form of society is democratic and places a high value on equality, we adhere to the rule of law. This concept centers on the idea that a safe and orderly society depends on governance by established principles and publicized codes that are applied to everyone uniformly and fairly. Under the rule of law, no one is above the law. Those who make the law and those who enforce the law must abide by it.

The term law is very general. We will define it for the purposes of this course as a rule of conduct given down by authority, which prohibits or commands certain behaviors. The law can be broken down into several types. The most common way to do this is to consider what types of behaviors the law seeks to control. Civil law is the body of law that regulates relationships between private individuals. Civil law deals with such things as contracts and torts. A tort is a wrongful act that often results in monetary damages being paid to the aggrieved party. This is different (at least theoretically) from the criminal law.

Criminal law (a.k.a. penal law) concerns itself with regulating acts that harm society as a whole. Take murder, for example. Obviously, there is a victim that has been harmed, which constitutes a private wrong—something for civil law to deal with. But, the legal logic is that because that person was killed, we all have suffered. We all are deprived of the victim as a member of our society, and we all feel a little less safe because of it.

Many legal writers have found it convenient to divide criminal law into two branches: substantive and procedural. The substantive criminal law deals directly with specifying exactly what acts are prohibited and what punishments are associated with committing those prohibited acts. Procedural law is the part of criminal law that specifies the methods that are used to enforce substantive criminal law. That is, it dictates how government agents (LE, court officers, corrections officers, etc.) can treat people.  In this course, we will use the term criminal law to mean substantive criminal law and leave the procedural law for another course.

Criminal law is a complex subject, but it is not so difficult that those with average intelligence cannot learn it with some effort. The largest barrier to understanding the law is the use of legal jargon and the large degree of precision that must be used when defining those legal terms and phrases. 


Society’s stability relies on people treating each other properly and predictably. This is managed through laws. In a democracy like ours, everyone is equal under the rule of law, meaning no one is exempt from following them, even those who create or enforce them. Law, in this context, is a rule set by an authority, guiding our behavior. Laws are of different types. Civil laws manage personal relationships, like contracts. For instance, if someone harms you, they might pay you in a process called a “tort.” Criminal laws, on the other hand, address acts harming society, like murder. Criminal law has two parts: substantive, which defines what acts are crimes and their punishments; and procedural, which tells officials how to enforce laws. This course focuses on the substantive part. Understanding laws can be challenging due to complex legal language and precision. 

References and Further Reading

English Common Law.” American Eras.

Criminal Law.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

Criminal Law.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law.

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  08/17/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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