Laying Down the Law


Law is the set of rules that determines how people behave, what they are allowed to do, and the punishments they receive for breaking them. Whether it’s the code of ethics for doctors or the rules that govern the conduct of police officers, these laws serve important purposes in society. The study of law is also about examining the ways that these laws evolve, change, and are used.

Different countries have their own legal systems, but they often have similarities that stem from historically accepted justice ideals. These systems may be based on common law, civil law, religious law, or customary law. Laws affect every aspect of our lives, from the contracts that govern the exchange of goods and services to the property rights that define our relationships with tangible possessions.

A comprehensive system of laws and principles arranged in codes that are easily accessible to citizens and jurists. It favors order, predictability, and clarity of purpose; but it also leaves room for the judiciary to adjust rules in response to social changes through the use of interpretive and creative jurisprudence.

The law is made up of many branches that regulate a wide range of issues in society. Contract law defines the terms of agreements that involve the transfer of goods or money, from a bus ticket to an option on the futures market. Criminal law sets the penalties for crimes, such as murder or treason. Tort law protects individuals from the actions of negligent and wrongful parties. The law also encompasses more esoteric topics, such as the right to privacy or the limits of free speech.

A judge’s decision in a particular case establishes the precedent that judges will follow in other cases with similar facts and circumstances. This is binding precedent, and a court that cannot justify overturning it must follow it without exception. The decision of the appeals court that can review a district court’s decisions is also binding precedent in the United States.

To lay down the law is to issue an authoritative command in a dominant or imperious manner. This can be a threat, an order or even a request. The term can also mean to set a course of action for others, such as a manager who “lays down the law” to his employees. It is sometimes used in sports to describe the allowance of time or distance given a quarry or competitor, as when a race referee allows a fox a head start before hounds are set after him. A more general sense of the word is found in British sports to mean the allowance of a lead horse ahead of the rest of the field in a race, especially in steeplechases. It is also used to refer to a head start in a hunting competition, particularly in steeplechases.