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Starting with law
Starting with law

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The definition of law

It is not easy to give a definition of law, as legal systems differ and individuals have different views of what law is. Many books containing numerous different ideas about and definitions of law have been written. A common theme emerging from these books and debates, however, has been that the law is a set of rules created by the state that form a framework to ensure a peaceful society. The law is enforced by the state. If it is broken or breached, sanctions can be imposed. While this definition does not cover all types of law, it is a good starting point as it brings together the idea of a state issuing commands to individuals and applying sanctions to those individuals if they do not obey these commands.

Generally, law applies to people throughout a country. There are, of course, laws which apply only to certain groupings, for example those that apply to children and young people or that apply only to individuals who drive.

For the purposes of this course, law will be defined as:

a set of rules created by the state which forms a framework to ensure a peaceful society. If the rules are broken they can be enforced by mechanisms created by the state and sanctions imposed.

This definition covers the key features of the law as we know it. It is created by the state to ensure that society works smoothly. If laws are broken then the people who broke them will face some form of punishment. The state also provides for methods of law enforcement. Therefore, during this course when we look at a specific law we will be considering some of the rights and responsibilities it entails, and how these are acquired and used.

The next activity is designed to explore further the definition of the law and how it applies to daily life.

Activity 1 The law and everyday life

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Without looking at the comment below, spend a few minutes thinking about what you have done today. Identify anything you have done that you think may have been governed by ‘laws’. When you have finished, read the comment.


There are many things you may have done today. You may have gone shopping, taken a bus, gone to work, bought lunch in a café, visited the doctor, bought a newspaper, watched the television, surfed the internet, driven a car, walked in the park, spoken to a friend on the telephone, withdrawn money from a cashpoint, paid an electricity bill, taken the children to school, and so forth. These are just some examples.

What they all have in common, though, is that in some way they are all affected by the law. Whether you stayed at home, went out shopping or went to work, there were legal dimensions to these actions. Even in our own homes, where it is generally thought we have the right to do as we please, we are affected by the law. We cannot behave in certain ways that affect our neighbours, such as playing music over a certain volume or letting trees grow high so that they become a nuisance. If our conduct breaks the law, such as using electricity without paying for it, or downloading music illegally from the internet, we could be prosecuted even though the activity was done in our home. We have to follow the law even in our own homes.

The law provides a framework that regulates the way we live, work and socialise. We may not agree with all the laws that exist but they have each been created for a purpose, whether it is to protect society, such as laws against violence, or to protect us, such as laws regulating the quality of products we buy.

Think back to some of the examples discussed in Activity 1. How do these link to the definition of law given above? If we do not pay for our shopping, we are breaking a law. Society does not think that this behaviour would be acceptable. A law has therefore been created which makes it a criminal offence to take something from a shop without paying for it.

One of the other examples was buying lunch in a café. Again, if you eat a lunch you have ordered and you do not pay, you would be guilty of a crime. However, in this example the person selling the lunch also has responsibilities. They have to comply with laws relating to food preparation, to advertising and to health and safety. While they have the right to expect you to pay for what you have eaten, they also have a responsibility to you for the food they have sold you.

Activity 2 The importance of law

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Here you are going to read an extract about the importance of law. You may need a dictionary to look up some words if you are unsure of their meaning. When you have read the extract, note down three things that you found interesting or surprising about the importance of law.

How the law works

Law is all-pervasive. It exists in every cell of life. It affects everyone virtually all of the time. It governs everything in life and even what happens to us after life. It applies to everything from the embryo to exhumation. It governs the air we breathe, the food and drink that we consume, our travel, sexuality, family relationships and our property. It applies at the bottom of the ocean and in space. It regulates the world of sport, science, employment, business, political liberty, education, health services – everything, in fact, from neighbour disputes to war.

The law in the United Kingdom has evolved over a long period. It has, over the centuries, successfully adapted itself through a great variety of social settings and disputes of government. Today it contains elements that are ancient, such as the coroners’ courts, which have an 800-year history and elements that are very modern, such as electronic law reports and judges using laptop computers.

Law has also become much more widely recognised as the standard by which behaviour needs to be judged. A very telling change in recent history is the way in which the law has permeated all parts of social life. The universal standard of whether something is socially acceptable is progressively becoming whether it is legal. In earlier times, most people were illiterate and did not have the vote. They were ruled, in effect by what we would call tyranny. And this was not just in 1250. That state of affairs still existed in the UK in 1850. Today, by contrast, most people are literate and have the vote. Parliamentary democracy is our system of government. So, it is quite possible and desirable for people in general to take an interest in law.

(Slapper, 2011, p. 1)


There are a number of points you could have noted. One student listed the following:

  1. I was surprised to realise that law applies to such everyday activities.
  2. I hadn’t thought before about law having to adapt to reflect new developments, such as computers.
  3. I was interested in the comment about the relationship between what is legal and what is socially acceptable. I will think about this further.