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What Are Sources of Law?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the sources of law?

Sources of law are the foundations from which the validity of legal norms derives. Constitutional law, statutory law, case law, administrative regulations, and customary law are included. These sources provide the legal authority and framework for governing and regulating societies.

What constitutes constitutional law?

The corpus of law derived from a written constitution is constitutional law. It establishes the fundamental principles, structures, and powers of government, as well as individual rights and liberties. Constitutional law is the supreme law of the state, directing the operation of the legal system and protecting the rights of citizens.

What is statutory law, exactly?

Statutory law comprises laws enacted by legislative bodies like parliaments and congresses. It addresses numerous aspects of governance, such as criminal offenses, civil rights, contracts, and property. Statutes are enacted through the legislative process and have the force of law, thereby imposing legal obligations on individuals and entities within the jurisdiction.

What exactly is case law?

The corpus of law derived from court decisions, also known as case law, common law, or judicial precedent. When courts interpret and apply laws to particular cases, their decisions establish legal principles that serve as precedents for future cases involving the same issues. Case law is essential to the formation and growth of the legal system because it clarifies statutes, establishes legal doctrines, and guides the interpretation and application of the law.

What are administrative rules and regulations?

Administrative regulations are rules and regulations developed by administrative agencies in order to implement and enforce laws enacted by legislatures. These regulations address particular aspects of governance and provide specific compliance guidelines. The legislature authorizes administrative agencies to create and enforce regulations in areas such as the environment, workplace safety, and financial regulations, among others. Individuals, enterprises, and organizations operating within the applicable jurisdiction must adhere to administrative regulations.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for MyLawQuestions. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon1000072 — On May 21, 2018

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.

By anon330200 — On Apr 15, 2013

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.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 04, 2011

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.

By lovealot — On Jun 02, 2011

@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!

By jonrss — On Jun 01, 2011

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.

By truman12 — On Jun 01, 2011

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.

By nextcorrea — On Jun 01, 2011

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

By gravois — On Jun 01, 2011

@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.

By backdraft — On Jun 01, 2011

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?

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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