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Law and change: Scottish legal heroes
Law and change: Scottish legal heroes

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4 Legal systems and law

Many dictionary definitions of law, justice systems or legal systems include the need for authority of the state. This authority is imbued in the institutions that create and enforce law, and for sanctions that are imposed when laws are broken. This then leads us to think about the essential features of a legal system. A legal system is required to make, apply and enforce the law. A legal system may therefore have some of the following characteristics:

  • a legislature, such as a parliament, to make laws
  • institutions that are responsible for investigating situations where someone claims that the law has been broken
  • a means of applying and interpreting the law to resolve legal disputes
  • procedural rules that specify how laws are made, interpreted and applied
  • specific laws covering a range of topics – for example, equality, consumers, employment, business, education, government, housing, banking, tax and local authorities.

The definition of law that is used for the purposes of this course is:

Law is a set of rules created by state institutions which make laws through the authority of the state. The laws have sanctions which are recognised by the state and enforced by state-authorised bodies.

This definition highlights some of the important characteristics of lawmaking and the enforcement of the law:

  • only certain institutions can make law
  • the authority of the state is needed to enable those institutions to make law
  • sanctions exist for breaking the law
  • the sanctions are imposed by those given state authority to do so.

Activity 4 Reflections on ‘law’?

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

In Activity 1 you were asked to write down words associated with law. Are there any new words you would now add? Have your perceptions of ‘law’ been changed or re-enforced by your studies of Weeks 1, 2 and 3?

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The words we associate with ‘law’ and our perceptions will differ and reflect how we have been introduced to, or experienced, the law. As you have seen, ‘law’ can be seen from many different viewpoints and its role may change depending on the society within which we live. Despite the fact that it is inextricably linked with our lives, many of us see law more from a remote perspective, through drama and news reports, and are not fully engaged with the role and influence of law and its impact on our everyday lives. Those that work in the ‘law’ or become involved in the legal system often have specific reasons for doing so. Their experiences will impact their perceptions in differing ways. Law, as said earlier, often has a negative reputation but it can be used as a force for positive change. This is something we will explore in later weeks.

On occasion, laws have to deal with aspects of our lives that we may have strong feelings about. It is recognised that one of the skills that students of law are expected to develop is to recognise that in such situations they need to remain impartial. This means any personal feelings are put to one side. The law is interpreted and applied as it is written. However, many individuals enter the legal professions, or seek changes in the law, as they want to make a difference and have passionate beliefs about rights, equality and justice. You will learn more about this in later weeks.