What are Sources of Law?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Sources of law is a legal term that refers to the authorities by which law is made. There are a number of different sources that are used to define the creation and force of law, though not all are used equally. Some examples of sources include legislation, government regulation, court decisions, and custom.

The laws of many English speaking countries are derived from the Anglo-Saxon common law that existed in King Alfred's time over 1000 years ago.
The laws of many English speaking countries are derived from the Anglo-Saxon common law that existed in King Alfred's time over 1000 years ago.

Constitutions are legislative documents that are a primary source of law in many regions. They are typically the highest law of the land, meaning that state or regional laws cannot conflict with a constitutional statute. States may also have constitutions, which local laws cannot conflict with. Most modern countries have a written constitution, though some, like New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have constitutions that are uncodified, meaning that they have grown and changed over time and include both written and unwritten sources.

Laws that have been created through legislation must conform to guidelines set by constitutions.
Laws that have been created through legislation must conform to guidelines set by constitutions.

Common law is one of the major sources of law that has been in use for nearly 1,000 years. This type of law is based on judges' decisions as well as legislation deeming certain actions illegal. Common law may dictate the specific laws and penalties of certain crimes, including murder, rape, and theft. One common concept in this important source of law is that of precedent, which suggests that future courts follow the rulings of prior courts on specific issues.

Common law is based on judges' decisions.
Common law is based on judges' decisions.

In addition to constitutions, many governments have the right to create legislation and statutes. Even local organizations such as city councils have the power to create ordinances that affect citywide behavior. These statutes and ordinances are often recognized as sources of laws.

Although discussions of sources of law generally revolve around regional law, there are other types of rule systems and guidelines that cite specific sources. Religion, for instance, often draws on specific important texts and laws handed down by elders in the organization to create codes of behavior and permitted actions. Natural law theorists argue that some laws are built into the fabric of universe itself, guiding both behavior and scientific principles, such as the inability to travel faster than the speed of light.

Custom-based sources of law generally rely on an existing behavior in a population. If, for instance, the entire workforce of a town takes a certain day off work each year, the city council could use that custom to create a law calling that day a public holiday. This type of law dates back at least until the Middle Ages in Europe, when local law would codify rights and responsibilities based on customs that had existed for generations.

Ordinances to ban certain harmful behaviors are created by local government officials.
Ordinances to ban certain harmful behaviors are created by local government officials.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Jurisprudence is really the eye of the law because it opens ones eyes to the rudiments of law and its application. Talking about sources of law as I learnt in Jurisprudence include legislative process, custom, constitution, etc.


Laws are very important for running and keeping a society in order. Laws are very interesting to think about and is a great topic to study. Laws also give us a deeper concept of how everything works in a society.


Some laws that were on the books and enforced through the 1950's, at least, had their source mostly from a religious stand point.

I remember as a little girl in the 50's that all stores were closed on Sundays. And that included grocery stores. Theaters, gas stations, taverns, and other establishments were closed all day Sunday.These were actual laws, not traditions. This gave people plenty of time to go to church and visit family.

Such a contrast to today. I guess these laws were repealed because they served no purpose for most of the people.


@truman12 - Your post makes some good points. You are right - there are some debates going on now about some crucial and far-reaching federal laws that might be voted on in the near future.

These laws are complicated, and these federal laws will affect the entire country. Are some federal laws self-serving to certain business and government groups, or are they going to benefit the majority of Americans?

This is the big question!


Constitutional law is probably the strongest source of the law. The rights set forth in the constitution apply to all citizens and cannot be abridged under any circumstances. They are the supreme laws of our land.

That is why so much legal debate centers around the constitution. It is from the these laws that all other laws filter down. They are the foundation of our entire civil society.


This is an important concept as the legislative process becomes increasingly contentious. We have seen antics and shenanigans on both sides of the aisle as congress debates some of the most significant legislation in years.

The reason we see this kind of behavior is that the consequences are so significant. If a bill is passed into federal law, it immediately effects everyone in America. The debate has to take place at the source, otherwise we end up with weak, contradictory or biased laws.


I immediately thought of some of those crazy laws that you hear about in small towns. I guess somebody had to think them up and write them down. Here are a few that I can remember.

-All women over 6' tall must not ride horses

-Yellow dogs can only travel in packs of 3

-Beer may only be consumed during the day


@backdraft - Those are interesting questions that I think a lot of people don't give much thought too. The law is a human product. It does not come from anyone but ourselves. This is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness because it is subject to all the flaws and manipulations that effect all human systems. We have to always consider where our laws come from before we can accept if they are valid.


Sources of law sounds like a pretty dry and boring concept but its actually really interesting to think about. Who makes the laws and why? What laws are real and which are imagined? Are there certain circumstances in which traditional sources of law go out the window like war or disaster? These questions are better answered by a legal scholar, but the are interesting to think about considering what a deep effect the law has on all of our lives?

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