What is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, and it has been described as both a science and an art. It is the source of many fields of scholarly inquiry, including legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law may be a source of morality and justice (the distribution of goods, privileges and burdens in society). It also provides a source of economic benefits, such as the development of markets and commercial transactions, and it is an important means of protection for individuals against predatory or exploitative practices by others.

Law encompasses a vast variety of subject areas, with its various branches including criminal, civil and administrative law. The development of law has been driven by a variety of factors, including the need to provide for commerce and trade, to protect the environment, to provide security for property and people, to prevent terrorism and other serious crimes and to establish standards of conduct in public life. The evolution of law has also been shaped by social and cultural developments, such as the increasing importance of personal privacy, the rise of a global economy and the growing numbers of people who live outside their own nation-state.

The complexity of laws in modern societies has increased dramatically. Some of this complexity arises from the fact that it is impossible to achieve a complete codification of all the laws of a nation-state, so that they can be read and understood by every person who is a citizen. Other complexity results from the way in which a law’s rules are changed, adapted and developed, for example by the use of precedent and other forms of judicial interpretation.

Some aspects of the operation of a law can be objectively measured, but it is difficult to achieve complete objectivity in law because of the nature of human perception and reasoning. The judicial community, for example, largely adheres to the Holmesian principle of judging cases on their own merits rather than according to whether a judge’s decision is likely to be upheld or overturned.

The principal functions of a law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights and promote social justice. The extent to which a law fulfils these functions depends on the political landscape, with the existence of democratic government and an awareness of the rights of citizens often being key factors in its success. Inevitably, some law systems fail to meet these objectives. An authoritarian government, for example, can keep the peace but it may also oppress minorities or suppress the political opposition. It is therefore not surprising that, each year, there are revolts against existing political-legal authority.