This post was inspired by a very tricky question put to me by fellow blogger, Mike Downes. In struggling to explain how the law works to his children he came to realise not only that doing so was very hard, but also that defining what the law itself is can be even trickier. Mike has asked me, as a police officer, what is the law?
For someone who deals with the law day in and day out I thought my understanding might give me a head start in providing a satisfactory answer. The more I thought about the question though the more I realised that actually, regularly dealing with the law didn’t seem to offer any ready solutions and that the ‘right’ answer is much more elusive than first it seemed.
What IS the law then? Even knowing where to start looking for the answer is tricky. Is the law what is written in the statutes? Where do legal precedents come in and what about the impact of public opinion, shifting ethics and developments in technology on how we define the law? Is the law something that applies equally to all people across all regions and indeed should it be?
I think that even mentioning the word ‘ethics’ makes the answer so much harder to find and yet no answer to the question ‘what is the law’ could be satisfactorily answered without some reference to ethics. Why do we impose the laws that we do and how do we decide how they ought be enforced? What makes us rescind laws and who has the right to make the final decision when two or more opposing and equally valid arguments clash over what should be legal and what should not? Is a law passed by a legislature with a low majority as enforceable as one the comes into force driven by popular mandate?
Unfortunately rather than getting me any closer to formulating an answer, these questions awkwardly only yield further questions about what the ‘law’ is. I suppose I might also look to ask how far a government needs to go in passing laws that affect the rights of its citizens. Some laws are designed with our own good in mind – to protect us from ourselves – but how do these affect our relationship with those in charge? Does the cost of policing certain laws justify the benefit to society that the policing returns and if not, what does this say about the law itself? How do the outcome of these discussions affect how we perceive law?
I’m hoping that with my liberal use of the question mark key I’ve gone some way to suggest that there is no easy answer to the question ‘what is the law?’. I would imagine that in a room of ten different legal professionals you’d get at least eleven differing positions on what the law is and find none of them right or wrong, each as defensible as the last and all probably completely opposing. So what is the law? Having thought about the question I guess I’d have to conclude that whilst I know something of laws, the only answer I can offer is that ‘law’ itself is very, very hard to define.
As ever feedback is appreciated and the first person to post as a reply the correct name of the artist and song from this blog’s title will receive an approving nod from myself. I guess an interesting discussion to come out of this post might be around what ‘law’ means to you – what do you understand by the term and what do you make of some of the thoughts I’ve run through whilst trying – and failing – to work out what ‘law’ is?