Norms are rules of behaviour that are recognised and respected by the community. They may take the form of laws or social norms. They can be created and enforced by justice system actors as well as authority figures in schools, workplaces, or religious and other communities. Norms may also be generated bottom-up, as a function of what people do in practice.
Setting pro-social norms and communicating about them can influence people’s behaviour and prevent legal problems from arising. Compliance with norms results from (formal or informal) monitoring and enforcement. In some cases, norms are internalised, meaning that they influence human behaviour even in the absence of external sanctions. Once established, norms can help to facilitate decision-making and avoid the tensions and stress of personal responsibility.
The complexity of legal language and the inaccessibility of most courts and legal texts mean that legal norms in particular are not always well understood. This may result in unintentional violations of the law – particularly when legal norms are not compatible with local practice and social norms.
Decision-makers may also be reluctant to apply norms in a fair and consistent way because they stand to benefit personally from making decisions on a more subjective basis. This may result in unfair dispute resolution outcomes for the individuals under their authority.
In tight-knit communities, people tend to observe social norms instead of the law because the former have lower transaction costs and are typically as effective as promoting cooperative behavior.