08 April 2012 Written by  Tesfaye Abate

Definition and Basic Features of Law


Jurists have defined law differently from different point of views. It has been called Dhama in Hindu jurisprudence and “Hukum” in Islamic system. Romans called it jus and in Germany and France, it is called as Recht and Droit respectively [N.V. PARANJAPE; 2001: 133].

Defining the term ‘law’ is not an easy task because the term changes from time to time and different scholars define the term variously. Definition of the term may vary due to the different types of purposes sought to be achieved. Definitions given to the term law are as many as legal theories.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary [Garner; 2004: 900] law consists of rules of action or conduct. These rules are issued by an authority. In addition, these rules have binding force and are obeyed and followed by citizens. Sanction or other legal consequence may help the law to be abided by citizens.

From the pragmatic point of view, American jurist, Benjanin Nation Cordazo defines law as “a principle or rule of conduct so established as to justify a production with reasonable certainty that it will be enforced by the courts if its authority is challenged.” [Steven; 2003: 8].  According to Holmes “the prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious, are what I mean by the law”. It is observable from these definitions that courts play great role in applying as well as creating the law.

From the sociological perspective, Max Weber suggests that an order will be called law if it is externally guaranteed by the probability that coercion (physical or psychological), to bring about conformity or avenge violation will be applied by a staff of people holding themselves especially ready for that purpose [Steven; 2003: 8].

He argues that law has three features that distinguish it from other normative orders such as custom or convention [[Steven; 2003: 9]:

a) There must be a pressure that comes from external in the form of actions or threats of action by others regardless of the person wants to obey the law or not;

b) These external actions or threats of action always involve coercion or force;

c) Individuals whose official role is to enforce the law must enforce the coercive action.

He refers to state particularly when he talks about officials who enforce the law because they are state officials who are empowered to do that.

In general, law may be described in terms of legal order tacitly or formally accepted by the society and enforced. A body of binding rules sufficient compliance of them is ensured by some mechanism accepted by community is called law [Paton; 1967].


[Biset Beyene, Introductory Note on Law in general, 2006, Unpublished, Alpha University College, Pp. 1ff]

Analysing the features and nature common to all laws would help us to understand the concept of law. Among these features and natures, the ones considered as essential include generality, normativity and sanction.


Law is a general rule of human conduct. It does not specify the names of specific persons or behaviours. Hence, its generality is both in terms of the individuals governed and in terms of the social behaviour controlled.

The extent of its generality depends on-on whom the law is made to be applicable. Consider the following illustrations.

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of a person.” [Art 3, UNDHR; 1948].

- This law is made to be applicable to every person on this world. Therefore, it is universal.

“Every person has the inviolable and inalienable right to life, the security of person and liberty.” [Article 14 of the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia].

- This constitutional provision is made to be applicable to every person in Ethiopia. so, the extent of its generality is national. This is less general than the first illustration.

“Every Ethiopian national, without any discrimination based on colour, race, nation, nationality, sex, status, has the following rights…

(b) On attainment of 18 years of age, to vote in accordance with the law.” [Article    38(1)(b) of the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.].
- This law is made to be applicable only to Ethiopian nationals who attain 18 years of age. Therefore, it is even less general than the second illustration.

“Whoever intentionally spreads or transmits a communicable human disease is punishable with rigorous imprisonment not exceeding ten years.” [Article 514 (1) of the 2004 Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia].

- This law is made to be applicable only on a person who commits the crime.
Therefore, it is even less general than the third illustration.

“The term of office of the presidents shall be six years. No person shall be selected president for more than two terms” [Article 70(4) of the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia].

- This law is made to be applicable only to a person who becomes a president in Ethiopia. Therefore, it is even less general than the fourth illustration.

Under all these illustrations, the subjects of laws are given in general terms. However, the extents of the generalities decrease from universality to an individual person. Generality of the subject of the law may serve two purposes. Firstly, it promotes uniformity and equality before the law because any person falling under the group governed by the law will be equally treated under the same law. Secondly, it gives relative permanence to the law. Since it does not specify the names of the persons governed, the same law governs any person that falls in the subject on whom the law is made to be applicable. There is no need to change the law when individuals leave the group. This is what can clearly be seen from the fifth illustration. Even if the former president’s term of office has lapsed, the same law governs the present and future presidents without any need to change the law. The permanence of law is indicated as relative for there is no law made by person, which can be expected to be applicable eternally.

Generality of law, as indicated above, does not only refer to the subjects governed but also the human conduct, which is controlled. The human conduct in any law is given as a general statement on possible social behaviour. It does not refer to any named specific act like stealing, killing by shooting and killing by spearing. Just a law can govern millions of similar acts and that saves the legislator from making millions of laws for similar acts, which may make the law unnecessarily bulky.


Law does not simply describe or explain the human conduct it is made to control. It is created with the intention to create some norms in the society. Law creates norms by allowing, ordering or prohibiting the social behaviour. This shows the normative feature of the law. Based on this feature, law can be classified as permissive, directive or prohibitive.

A) Permissive Law

Permissive laws allow or permit their subjects to do the act they provide. They give right or option to their subjects whether to act or not to act. Most of the time such laws use phrases like:

-          has/ have the right to

-          is/are permitted/allowed to

-          shall have the right

-          shall be entitled to

-          may

-          is/are free to


“Every person is free to think and to express his idea.” [Article 14 of The 1960 Civil Code of Ethiopia].

- The human conduct to think and to express ideas is permitted by this law. Therefore, it is a permissive law.

“Accused persons have the right to be informed with sufficient particulars of charge brought against them and to be given the charge in writing.” [Article 20(2) of the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia].

- “have the right to” in this law shows that the subject is given the right or permitted to get the charge in writing and to be informed its particulars. Therefore, it is permissive law.

B) Directive law

Directive law orders, directs or commands the subject to do the act provided in the law. It is not optional. Therefore, the subject has legal duty to do it whether s/he likes it or not, otherwise, there is an evil consequence that s/he incurs unless s/he does it as directed by the law. Directive law usually uses phrases like:

-          must

-          shall

-          has/have the obligation

-          is/are obliged to

-          is/are ordered to

-          shall have the obligation/duty


“The debtor shall personally carry out his obligations under the contract where this is essential to the creditor or has been expressly agreed.” [Civ. C. Art. 1740(1)]. “Shall…. carryout” in this law shows that the contracting party, the debtor, is directed, ordered or commanded by the law as it is provided. Therefore, this law is directive law.

“Every worker shall have the following obligations to perform in person the work specified in the contract of employment.” ( emphasis added) [Article 13(1) of the 2003 Labour Code Proclamation No. 377/2003].

”Shall have the … obligations to” in this law shows that the worker is directed by the law as it is provided in the law. Therefore, it is directive law.

In general, directive laws are mandatory provisions of laws. They oblige the subject to act, as they require him/her to act.

C) Prohibitive law

Prohibitive law discourages the subject from doing the act required not to be done. If the subject does the act against the prohibition, an evil follows as the consequence of the violation. All criminal code provisions are prohibitive laws. Prohibitive laws usually use phrases like:

-          must not;

-          shall not;

-          should not;

-          no one shall/should;

-          no person shall/should;

-          may not;

-          is/are not permitted/allowed;

-          is/are prohibited;

-          is/are punishable; and

-          is a crime.


“Any unmarried person who marries another he knows to be tied by the bond of an existing marriage is punishable with simple imprisonment.” [Article 650(2) of the 2004 Criminal Code of Ethiopia]

”is punishable” in this law, indicates that the law discourages such act. Therefore, it is prohibitive law.

“No one may enter the domicile of another against the will of such person, neither may a search be effected there in, except in the case provided by law.”[Civ. C. Art 13].

“No one may” shows that any one is discouraged from acting as provided by the law and so it is a prohibitive law.

III) Sanction

Each and every member of a society is required to follow the law. Where there is violation the law sanction would follow. Sanction according to Black’s Law Dictionary [Garner; 2004: 1368], is a penalty or coercive measure that results from failure to comply a law. The main purpose of sanction is to prompt a party (a wrong doer) to respond. In other words, sanction will make the wrong doer to think that s/he made a fault and s/he should correct it. Sanction may be criminal. Criminal sanction is a sanction attached to criminal liability [Garner; 2004: 1368]. If the fault committed is defined by criminal law, the person will be liable to a sanction provided under the criminal law.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 13:05
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