08 April 2012 Written by  Tesfaye Abate


[Biset Beyene, Introductory Note on Law in General, 2006: 5-10]

Different legal theories developed throughout societies. Though there are a number of theories, only four of them are dealt with here under. They are Natural, Positive, Marxist, and Realist Law theories. You may deal other theories in detail in your course on jurisprudence.


Natural law theory is the earliest of all theories. It was developed in Greece by philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It was then followed by other philosophers like Gairus, Cicero, Aquinas, Gratius, Hobbes, Lock, Rousseau, Kant and Hume. In their studies of the relation between nature and society, these philosophers have arrived at the conclusion that there are two types of law that govern social relations. One of them is made by person to control the relations within a society and so it may vary from society to society and also from time to tome within a society. The other one is that not made by person but controls all human beings of the world. Such laws do not vary from place to place and from time to time and even used to control or weigh the laws made by human beings. These philosophers named the laws made by human beings as positive laws and the laws do not made by human being as natural laws.

Natural law is given different names based on its characteristics. Some of them are law of reason, eternal law, rational law, and principles of natural justice.

Natural law is defined by Salmond as “the principles of natural justice if we use the term justice in its widest sense to include all forms of rightful actions.” Natural law theory has served different societies in many ways. The Romans used it to develop their laws as jus civile, laws governing roman citizens, and jus gentium, laws governing all their colonies and foreigners.

The Catholic Pope in Europe during the middle age become dictator due to the teachings of Thomas Aquinas that natural law is the law of God to the people and that the pope was the representative of God on earth to equally enforce them on the subjects and the kings. At the late of the Feudalism stage, Locke, Montesque and others taught that person is created free, equal and independent by taking the concept of Natural law as the individual right to life, liberty, and security. Similarly, Rousseau’s teachings of individual’s right to equality, life, liberty, and security were based on natural law. The English Revolution of 1888, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution of 1789 were also results of the Natural law theory.

Despite its contribution, however, no scholar could provide the precise contents of the natural law. As a result, it was subjected to criticisms of scholars like John Austin who rejected this theory and latter developed the imperative called positive law theory.


Positive law theory is also called, imperative or analysts law theory. It refers to the law that is actually laid down by separating “is” from the law, which is “ought” to be. It has the belief that law is the rule made and enforced by the sovereign body of the state and there is no need to use reason, morality, or justice to determine the validity of law.

According to this theory, rules made by the sovereign are laws irrespective of any other considerations. These laws, therefore, vary from place to place and from time to time. The followers of this theory include Austin, Bentham and H.L.A Hart. For these philosophers and their followers law is a command of the sovereign to his/her subjects and there are three elements in it: command; sovereign; and sanction. Command is the rule given by the sovereign to the subjects or people under the rule of the sovereign. Sovereign refers to a person or a group of persons demanding obedience in the state. Sanction is the evil that follows violations of the rule.

This theory has criticized by scholars for defining law in relation to sovereignty or state because law is older than the state historically and this shows that law exists in the absence of state. Thus, primitive law (a law at the time of primitive society) serves the same function as does mature law [Paton; 1967: 72-3].

With regard to sanction as a condition of law in positive law, it is criticized that the observance of many rules is secured by the promise of reward (for example, the fulfilment of expectations) rather than imposing a sanction. Even though sanction plays a role in minority who is reluctant, the law is obeyed because of its acceptance by the community “habit, respect for the law as such, and a desire to reap the rewards which legal  protection of acts will bring” are important factors the law to be obeyed [Paton; 1967:74]

The third main criticism of definition of law by Austin (positive law theory) is that it is superficial to regard the command of the sovereign as the real source of the validity of law. It is argued that many regard law as valid because it is the expression of natural justice or the embodiment of the sprit of people [Paton; 1967: 77].


Marxists believe that private property is the basis for the coming into existence of law and state. They provide that property was the cause for creation of classes in the society in which those who have the means of production can exploit those who do not have these means by making laws to protect the private property. They base their arguments on the fact that there was neither law nor state in primitive society for there was no private property. The theory has the assumption that people can attain a perfect equality at the communism stage in which there would be no private property, no state and no law. But, this was not yet attained and even the practice of the major countries like the former United Soviet Socialist Russia (U.S.S.R.) has proved that the theory is too good to be turn[Beset; 2006 ]. Nevertheless, this theory is challenged and the theory of private property triumphs.


Realist theory of law is interested in the actual working of the law rather than its traditional definitions. It provides that law is what the judge decides in court. According to this theory, rules not put to use to solve practical cases are not laws but merely existing as dead words and these dead words of law get life only when applied in reality. Therefore, it is the decision given by the judge but not the legislators that is considered as law according to this theory. Hence, this theory believes that the lawmaker is the judge and not the legislative body.

This theory has its basis in the common law legal system in which the decision previously given by a court is considered as a precedent to be used as a law to decide future similar case. This is not applicable in civil law legal system, which is the other major legal system of the world, and as a result this theory has been criticized by scholars and countries following this legal system for the only laws of their legal system are legislation but not precedents. This implies that the lawmaker in civil law legal system is the legislative body but not the judge. The followers of this theory include Justice Homes, Lawrence Friedman, John Chpman Gray, Jerom Frank, Karl N. Lewelln and Yntema.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 13:05