HOW IMPORTANT IS THE LAW?
We live on an island with a population of nearly 60 million people, and now a vast number of laws affect almost every aspect of our lives.
– The laws that apply to everyone, wherever we may be, are called the laws of the land. It is the law throughout the whole land that no one should steal and no one should supply certain drugs.
– The laws that only apply locally, in the areas in which we live, are called bylaws. There are roads in your area and there may be a park near your home. There will be special local laws which govern the traffic that uses theseroads, or the way in which those who visit the park should behave. These by-laws will apply only to your local roads and your local park, and not to all the roads and parks in the country.
Whether laws are laws of the land or by-laws, they are mostly inspired by the desire to improve our lives and protect us from harm. They give each of us rights, which should be respected by others. We also have duties to obey them, whether we like them or not; and when we do so we automatically protect the rights of the people about us. This simple balance, which gives everyone rights and imposes on everyone equal and opposite duties towards others, is one of the basic foundations of our laws:
– We have the right to own our own property and to be left in peace to enjoy it. Equally, we have the duty to let others own and enjoy their property; and so, we must not steal from others. We know that there are those who break this law, and cause much distress by doing so. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences if it were not against the law to steal. Society would swiftly descend into chaos and violence.
– We have the right to safety on the roads. There are speed limits on all the public roads in the country, because experience shows that road accidents are often caused by people driving too fast. Some drivers may be better than others; some cars
are designed to go much faster than others; but we all use the roads together – and all drivers, however good or bad, have the duty to drive within the speed limits. If they do so, they will help all road users to travel in safety.
In Chapter 4 we will learn more about the duties we owe as individuals, not merely to one another, but also to the State. We will also learn that ignorance of the law can never be an excuse for breaking it. Of course, laws do not deal only with very obvious things, such as stealing and driving too fast; they affect us in very many ways. The laws that make up our constitution guard our basic freedoms and guard us against the tyranny of a dictator. The ordinary laws that affect the way in which we lead our lives are designed to protect us from many different kinds of harm.
Laws can and must change to achieve these goals. The laws we have today bear very little relation to those of centuries ago. The laws we have in force at any particular time reflect our thoughts and attitudes as a people at that time, and in many cases it is possible for historians to trace a thread through from our past laws to our present ones. When Justice Kennedy of the US Supreme Court posed the question, ‘What is law?’ he answered it, saying, ‘Law links the past to the future. The law is a story of our moral progress as a people’.
Not everyone appreciates the extent to which our lives are surrounded and governed by laws of one kind or another. They may or may not be effective, but they are there, and there is little we do that is totally unaffected by the law.