Define: Legal Theory

Legal Theory
Legal Theory
Quick Summary of Legal Theory

Legal theory encompasses a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the nature, purpose, and function of law. It involves the critical examination of legal concepts, principles, and institutions to develop theories and frameworks for analysing and interpreting the law. Legal theorists explore questions about the foundations of law, the relationship between law and morality, the role of judges and legal institutions, and the implications of legal decisions on society. Legal theory draws on various disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, political science, economics, and history, to provide insights into the nature of law and its impact on individuals and communities. By engaging in theoretical inquiry, legal scholars seek to deepen our understanding of the law and contribute to the development of more just, effective, and equitable legal systems.

What is the dictionary definition of Legal Theory?
Dictionary Definition of Legal Theory

The primary purpose of legal theory is to define the law. There have been several theories of law. These different theories often look at the law from various points of view.

According to the natural law theory, there are objective principles that depend on the essential nature of the universe and can be discovered by natural reason. From the point of view of the ordinary human being, law is only true law so far as it conforms to these fundamental rights. According to this theory, there are certain objective and absolute principles of morality and justice that are the basis of law. These principles can be ascertained by humans, which are the basis of law. These principles can be ascertained by human reason and common sense. Positive law, or man-made law, has to conform to these fundamental principles. To the extent that positive law is inconsistent with the principles of natural law, it does not claim obedience.

The roots of this theory are to be found in the philosophies of the ancient Greek philosophers. This theory is also responsible for much of the legal and political thinking of the Middle Ages. As Bodenheim rightly remarks, no other philosophy moulded and shaped American thinking and American institutions to such an extent as did the philosophy of natural law in the form given to it in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Full Definition Of Legal Theory

Legal theory, also known as jurisprudence, is the philosophical study of law. It examines the nature, purpose, and function of law and encompasses various schools of thought that interpret the concept of law in different ways. The study of legal theory is crucial for understanding the underlying principles that govern legal systems and for analysing how laws are created, interpreted, and applied. This overview aims to explore the major schools of legal thought, the relationship between law and morality, and the role of justice in legal theory.

The Schools of Legal Thought

Natural Law Theory

Natural law theory posits that law is based on inherent moral principles that are universally recognisable through human reason. This school of thought asserts that there is a fundamental connection between law and morality. Key proponents of natural law include Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and John Finnis.

  • Aristotle: Aristotle’s conception of natural law is rooted in the idea that certain principles of justice are inherent in the nature of things and can be discerned through reason.
  • Thomas Aquinas: Aquinas built upon Aristotle’s ideas, arguing that natural law is part of divine providence. According to Aquinas, human laws are just when they are derived from natural law.
  • John Finnis: In the modern era, John Finnis has revitalised natural law theory, emphasising the objective moral order and the role of practical reason in recognising it.

Natural law theory has significantly influenced the development of Western legal systems, particularly in the areas of human rights and constitutional law.

Legal Positivism

Legal positivism is the view that law is a set of rules and principles that are created and enforced by social institutions. Unlike natural law theory, legal positivism separates law from morality. Key figures in this school of thought include John Austin, H.L.A. Hart, and Hans Kelsen.

  • John Austin: Austin defined law as the command of the sovereign, backed by sanctions. He argued that the validity of law is based on its source rather than its content.
  • H.L.A. Hart: Hart refined legal positivism by distinguishing between primary and secondary rules. Primary rules govern conduct, while secondary rules provide the mechanisms for creating, changing, and interpreting primary rules.
  • Hans Kelsen: Kelsen developed the Pure Theory of Law, which posits that law is a hierarchical system of norms, each deriving its validity from a higher norm, ultimately leading to the Grundnorm or basic norm.

Legal positivism has been influential in the development of modern legal systems, particularly in its emphasis on the importance of legal procedures and institutions.

Legal Realism

Legal realism is a movement that challenges the formalism of legal positivism by emphasising the role of social, economic, and psychological factors in shaping law. Legal realists argue that the application of law is often influenced by the personal biases and experiences of judges.

  1. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: Holmes is often considered the father of American legal realism. He argued that the law should be understood in terms of its practical effects and that judicial decisions are often influenced by factors beyond legal rules.
  2. Karl Llewellyn: Llewellyn focused on the role of judicial behaviour and the importance of considering the social context in which laws operate.

Legal realism has contributed to a more nuanced understanding of the law, highlighting the importance of considering the broader social context in legal analysis.

Critical Legal Studies

Critical Legal Studies (CLS) is a movement that emerged in the 1970s, drawing on Marxist theory, critical theory, and postmodernism. CLS scholars argue that law is not a neutral or objective system but is instead a tool used by dominant social groups to maintain power and control.

  • Duncan Kennedy: Kennedy is a prominent CLS scholar who has critiqued the hierarchical nature of legal education and practice, arguing that they perpetuate social inequalities.
  • Roberto Mangabeira Unger: Unger has emphasised the indeterminacy of law and the need for transformative approaches to legal and social structures.

CLS has influenced various fields, including feminist legal theory and critical race theory, by highlighting the role of law in perpetuating social injustices.

Law and Morality

The relationship between law and morality is a central concern in legal theory. This debate can be framed in terms of the following questions:

  1. Is there an intrinsic connection between law and morality?
  2. Should laws reflect moral values?
  3. Can immoral laws be considered valid laws?

The Intrinsic Connection

Natural law theorists argue that there is an intrinsic connection between law and morality. They believe that laws must be grounded in moral principles to be valid. Conversely, legal positivists assert that law and morality are separate domains. According to H.L.A. Hart, a legal system can be identified without reference to morality.

Laws Reflecting Moral Values

The question of whether laws should reflect moral values is contentious. Some argue that laws should embody moral principles to promote justice and social order. Others contend that the primary function of law is to provide a framework for resolving conflicts and maintaining stability, rather than enforcing morality.

Immoral Laws

The issue of whether immoral laws can be considered valid is another point of debate. Natural law theorists would argue that an immoral law is not a true law. Legal positivists, however, maintain that the validity of a law depends on its source and adherence to procedural rules, not its moral content.

Justice in Legal Theory

Justice is a fundamental concept in legal theory, often divided into different types, such as distributive justice, corrective justice, and procedural justice.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice concerns the fair allocation of resources and opportunities within society. Theories of distributive justice seek to determine the principles by which goods and burdens should be distributed among individuals.

  • Aristotle: Aristotle argued that distributive justice involves the proportional distribution of goods based on merit.
  • John Rawls: Rawls proposed the theory of justice as fairness, which includes the principles of equal basic liberties and the difference principle, which allows social and economic inequalities only if they benefit the least advantaged members of society.

Corrective Justice

Corrective justice focuses on rectifying wrongs and restoring balance. It is concerned with ensuring that individuals who have been wronged receive appropriate compensation or restitution.

  • Aristotle: Aristotle’s concept of corrective justice involves restoring equality by compensating for losses caused by wrongful acts.
  • Immanuel Kant: Kant emphasised the moral duty to rectify wrongs and restore the status quo ante.

Procedural Justice

Procedural justice relates to the fairness of the processes by which laws are made, administered, and enforced. It emphasises the importance of fair and transparent procedures in ensuring justice.

  • John Rawls: Rawls highlighted the significance of fair procedures in his theory of justice as fairness.
  • Lon L. Fuller: Fuller argued that the morality of law is inherent in the procedural principles that guide the creation and application of legal rules.


Legal theory provides a rich and diverse framework for understanding the nature, purpose, and function of law. The various schools of thought, including natural law theory, legal positivism, legal realism, and critical legal studies, offer different perspectives on the relationship between law and morality, the role of justice, and the factors that influence the creation and application of legal rules. By examining these theories, we gain a deeper appreciation of the complexities and nuances of legal systems, as well as the principles that underpin them.

The study of legal theory is not merely an academic exercise but has practical implications for how laws are interpreted and applied in real-world contexts. It challenges us to consider the moral and ethical dimensions of law, the importance of fair procedures, and the ways in which legal systems can be reformed to promote justice and equality. Through the lens of legal theory, we are better equipped to critically analyse and engage with the legal issues that shape our societies.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 6th June 2024.

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