Where people live together or gather in numbers they usually agree on rules about conduct and procedures. They do this so that the group may better achieve its objectives and to ensure the rights of its individual members are respected and protected. Schools have rules specifically for these purposes, as do social groups such as clubs and sporting teams. Families too might have rules, determined by parents or guardians, to ensure the safety and security of younger members. Society has certain unwritten rules that reflect social and cultural values, such as an expectation that individuals display courtesy and good manners, observe things like queues and keep to the left on escalators.
A law is the highest form of rule and protects individuals by determining what is acceptable behaviour and conduct. Laws are considered a fundamental element of civilised society: maintaining order, ensuring good conduct and protecting the human and civil rights of individuals. Without a system of laws, society would most likely degenerate into disorder and anarchy. Decisions in lawless societies are generally made by individuals or groups who have the strength or power to coerce others. The 1980 Australian movie Mad Max (see picture) was set in a fuel-depleted society where law and order had begun to dissolve, and areas outside the cities were ruled by armed motorcycle gangs, the most powerful of which was headed by the eponymous ‘Toecutter’. Laws exist primarily to halt this descent into chaos, violence and anarchy.
In societies like Australia, which is a liberal democracy, laws are determined by institutions, not by individuals. Collectively, these institutions are considered to represent the state. Even in a society which operates according to the rule of law, much depends on the trust and consent of the people. The population generally accepts the need for laws and obeys them willingly. The state lacks the power and the resources to enforce and uphold laws if large numbers of citizens willfully disobey them. As citizens, we agree to abide by certain rules and surrender our absolute freedoms – and in return our lives and our rights are protected by the state and its laws. The French philosopher Rousseau, who lived in the mid 1700s, described this as the social contract.
The law is fundamentally important – but it is not perfect. The law is only as fair and effective as those who develop, implement and oversee it. Charles Dickens once noted that “the law is an ass” while Martin Luther King correctly observed that “everything that Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’.” The law is not above debate, criticism or challenge. The law must be flexible, receptive to suggested reform and capable of change. As people and society changes, so too must the law.