The Sources of Law


The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It serves many aims: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Different legal systems serve these purposes differently. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but it might oppress minorities and stifle social change (e.g., Burma, Zimbabwe or Iraq under Saddam Hussein).

Different schools of legal thought have shaped the question of what law is. Some, like natural law theorists, argue that laws exist independently of human elaboration and cannot be changed by government action. Others, such as utilitarian philosophers, argue that law exists to promote the most good for the greatest number of people.

Most legal systems rely on both written statutes and judicial decisions to create their laws. Statutes are often written by legislators and can be amended over time. Judicial decisions are generally shorter and less detailed but are binding on lower courts in a given jurisdiction, according to the principle of stare decisis.

In addition to legislative and judicial laws, other sources of law include religious tenets, custom and community practice. Religious law typically relies on the Quran or other holy texts, but then further elaborates the meaning and implication of those texts by using interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent. Other legal sources include Christian canon law and Jewish Halakha, both of which survive in some church communities.