Unit 2 – Role of law in society

Role of law
in society

The objective of the law is to establish equilibrium in a society. We saw in the previous unit that this means, most of the time, controlling power through a structure – the state – and a form of government – democracy. We will now consider how democratic states organize power through the law. As for most organisations, this happens on a vertical design: power is distributed to different authorities positioned on a hierarchy (1 – decentralization of power) where communication is key (2 – administration). Both of these elements are established by a complex set of laws that also follow its hierarchy (3 – legal acts). This picture will allow us to understand how order is practically enforced and maintained in a society.

Decentralization of power in a state

States can be divided into two categories: unitary or federal. In a unitary state, the central government holds complete sovereignty. In a federal state, sovereignty is shared between the national (federal) government and units (states). This allows every federated state to have its own laws concerning local affairs that the federal state cannot change. This equals a decentralized distribution of power.

Decentralization, however, can take place in a unitary state as well. This is the case with local self-government, a territorial design allowing local institutions to manage local issues. Sovereignty still belongs to the national government, which decides to transfer some part of its power to territorial units. The key difference between a federated state in a federal system and self-government in a unitary system is that the latter doesn’t have its own laws.

The rationale supporting both self-government and federal states is that governance is more effective when closer to the people.


Administration and bureaucracy

The system of offices and bureaus that ensure the functioning of public health and education, for instance, are part of the state’s administrations.

We mentioned that the government’s task is to maintain order, enforce laws, and provide public services. The executive arm of the government – the one that translates legal directives into actionable policies – is the administration. For example, the system of offices and bureaus that ensure the functioning of public health and education are part of the state’s administration. Administration also represents the most recurrent point of contact between the people and the state. It can be understood as the means that enables communication within the state structure, but also between the state and the people. Their role is, hence, crucial.

Administrative agencies have four, key functions:

  • Regulating and overseeing public sectors. Regulatory agencies establish guidelines and standards for public sectors to function properly.
  • Delivery of public services – such as health, education, and transportation.
  • Contribution to policy-making, thanks to their knowledge and expertise.
  • Record-keeping and data management. Agencies maintain databases, an essential function for public governance, planning, and information.

Administrative agencies have bureaucratic and hierarchical structures. This entails standardized procedures and a strict adherence to rules and regulations. The level of transparency and functionality of these rules makes a huge difference in the effectiveness of the entire state, as they enable internal communication to run smoothly.

Hierarchy of laws



All institutions of the state – the Government, the Parliament, and every branch of their administration – communicate internally with each other and externally with the people through the writing of legal acts  A legal act is a document that creates, modifies, or extinguishes rights and obligations. The adjustment of protocols within an administrative agency, the presentation of a law by Parliament, and the allocation of new funds for a regional government all involve legal processes that move up or down the hierarchy of power within a state or a confederation of states. Not all legal acts are the same: each one of them is positioned in a hierarchy that defines its function, authority, and scope. 

In the area of national laws, the constitution holds the highest place in the hierarchy. It contains the fundamental principles and values of a country and sets the legal ground for all fields of existence – including the form of government, the organization of power within the state, and the modalities of exercise of citizenship. Next in the hierarchy are laws. Laws are adopted by the legislative body following the process set by the constitution. Below laws are regulations, ordinances, and decisions explaining how a law should be implemented. 

Supranational laws stand at the top end of the hierarchy. They are formed through agreements and treaties between states, and are regulated by international law. The law of the European Union belongs to this layer, as it applies to all members and takes precedence over national law.

As a state’s constitution should not contradict an agreed supranational law, national legal acts must not violate the constitution. If they did, they would be unconstitutional, hence invalid. Notice the difference between illegality and unconstitutionality when speaking of legal acts. No legal act can be illegal, but a legal act can be unconstitutional. This explains why, sometimes, laws can be in contradiction with each other. On the other hand, concrete actions committed by an individual or a group can be illegal, if they break a law; but they cannot be unconstitutional.

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