What is Law? – Meaning and Purposes of Law

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Black's Law Dictionary defined law as the regime that orders human activities and relations through systematic application of the force of politically organised society, or through social pressure, backed by force, in such a society.

Law may be refer to the aggregate of legislation, judicial precedents, and accepted legal principles; the body of authoritative grounds of and administrative action; especially, the body of rules, standards, and principles that the courts of a particular jurisdiction apply in deciding controversies brought before them.

Law can therefore be defined as "a rule laid down for the guidance of an intelligent being by an intelligent being having power over him." This in essence means that law is the command of the commander (i.e. the sovereign) to the commanded (the citizens).

What is Law?

Law, in its generic sense, is a body of rules of action or conduct prescribed by the controlling authority, and having binding legal force. Law is therefore seen as that which must be obeyed and followed by citizens subject to sanctions or legal consequences. It can be described as a solemn expression of the will of the supreme power of the state.

Purposes of Law

The nature and functions of law vary throughout history and from country to country. In modern societies laws are made by some authorised bodies such as legislatures and administrative bodies, and these laws are backed and enforced by the coercive power of the state in a bid to ensure compliance by means of appropriate penalties or remedies.

Law could also be seen as the instrument by which society regulates the conduct and behaviour of members of that society.

Law in any society serves different functions. These functions range from how a government is formed or how a society deals with the challenges of criminality and crime commission. For instance, what would happen if there were no costs associated with illegal activity? According to Philip Cook (1986), if we disbanded all law enforcement agencies and removed all sanctions from the penal laws, the result would be "a crime wave of unprecedented proportions."

Different laws of crime as we have them across the length and breadth of Nigeria help to maintain a peaceful, orderly, relatively stable and progressive society. Thus, the very existence of laws serves some functions, ensuring obedience in those who otherwise would resort to disobeying lawful order in a society.

Law also helps to express, maintain and sustain the sovereignty of states, and by extension rights and duties of citizens. For instance, the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 says that "it shall be the duty and responsibility of all organs of government, and of all authorities and persons, exercising legislative, executive or judicial powers, to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of this Chapter of this Constitution."

The Constitution states further that,

  • Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority;
  • the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary responsibility of government; and
  • the participation by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

Again, the duties of the citizens are clearly stated in the Constitution when it says that;

It shall be the duty of every citizens to-

  • abide by this Constitution, respect its ideals and its institutions, the National Flag, the National Anthem, the National Pledge, and legitimate authorities;
  • help to enhance the power, prestige and good name of Nigeria, defend Nigeria and render such national service as may be required;
  • respect the dignity of other citizens and the rights and legitimate interests of others and live in unity and harmony and in the spirit of common brotherhood;
  • make the positive and useful contribution to the advancement, progress and well-being of the community where he resides;
  • render assistance to appropriate and lawful agencies in the maintenance of law and order, and
  • declare his income honestly to appropriate and lawful agencies and pay his tax promptly.

5 Major Purposes of Law

  1. Maintaining order and stability in society: Laws are created to establish rules and regulations that help maintain order and prevent chaos within a society.
  2. Protecting individual rights and freedoms: Laws are designed to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, ensuring that everyone is treated fairly and equally under the law.
  3. Promoting justice and fairness: Laws aim to promote justice by providing a framework for resolving disputes and ensuring that individuals are held accountable for their actions.
  4. Preventing and deterring crime: Laws are created to define and prohibit certain behaviors that are considered harmful or criminal, with the goal of preventing and deterring crime.
  5. Promoting social and economic welfare: Laws can be used to promote the well-being of society as a whole, by regulating economic activities, ensuring public safety, and providing social services.


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