The Purpose of Law

Why Do We Need the Law?

Almost everything we do is governed by some set of rules. There are rules for games, for social clubs, for sports and for adults in the workplace. There are also rules imposed by morality and custom that play an important role in telling us what we should and should not do. However, some rules — those made by the state or the courts — are called “laws”. Laws resemble morality because they are designed to control or alter our behaviour. But unlike rules of morality, laws are enforced by the courts; if you break a law — whether you like that law or not — you may be forced to pay a fine, pay damages, or go to prison.

Why are some rules so special that they are made into laws? Why do we need rules that everyone must obey? In short, what is the purpose of law?

If we did not live in a structured society with other people, laws would not be necessary. We would simply do as we please, with little regard for others. But ever since individuals began to associate with other people — to live in society –laws have been the glue that has kept society together. For example, the law in Canada states that we must drive our cars on the right-hand side of a two-way street. If people were allowed to choose at random which side of the street to drive on, driving would be dangerous and chaotic. Laws regulating our business affairs help to ensure that people keep their promises. Laws against criminal conduct help to safeguard our personal property and our lives.

Even in a well-ordered society, people have disagreements and conflicts arise. The law must provide a way to resolve these disputes peacefully. If two people claim to own the same piece of property, we do not want the matter settled by a duel: we turn to the law and to institutions like the courts to decide who is the real owner and to make sure that the real owner’s rights are respected.

We need law, then, to ensure a safe and peaceful society in which individuals’ rights are respected. But we expect even more from our law. Some totalitarian governments have cruel and arbitrary laws, enforced by police forces free to arrest and punish people without trial. Strong-arm tactics may provide a great deal of order, but we reject this form of control. The Canadian legal system respects individual rights while, at the same time, ensuring that society operates in an orderly manner. In Canada, we also believe in the Rule of Law, which means that the law applies to every person, including members of the police and other public officials, who must carry out their public duties in accordance with the law.