What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules created by government institutions that establishes a framework for ensuring a peaceful society. It is enforced by mechanisms that can punish those who violate the law. The precise definition of law is the subject of much debate.

The primary purposes of laws are establishing standards, maintaining order and resolving disputes. A legal system also serves to preserve individual rights and liberties, promote social justice and provide for the smooth transition of power in a state. Laws are created and enforced by a variety of institutions, including legislatures that produce statutes; the executive through decrees and regulations; and judges in common law jurisdictions who build case law through precedent. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, which are enforceable by courts.

It is impossible to define law completely, because different people have a variety of opinions about it. However, the broad consensus is that the law encompasses a set of principles and guidelines that govern a community. Some of these principles are based on the fact that people have inherent rights and liberties, which are determined by nature, while others involve moral and ethical considerations.

Many scholars have contributed to the study of law. Philosophers, economists and historians have all worked to understand its role in society. Other fields, such as social science and anthropology, have also contributed to the knowledge base about law. Empirical scholarship on law has a special focus on its public policy implications.

Laws can vary considerably among nations and regions, reflecting cultural traditions, historical influences and the structure of governments. In Western culture, for example, a constitution sets the basic framework for a nation-state and the laws it creates. Civil law, based on court decisions, is the dominant legal system in most Western countries. In contrast, criminal law is largely governed by statutes.

The concept of the law is deeply rooted in ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle’s work on criminal law is especially influential. Utilitarian theories of law, developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, became prevalent in the 19th century. Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have argued that the law reflects natural and unchanging laws of human behavior.

Other areas of law include labour and employment, family, property and taxation, constitutional and administrative law, and biolaw. Labour law concerns the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union; it includes regulations governing collective bargaining and strikes. Property law deals with the rights of owners and tenants to own and use land. Taxation law is concerned with how citizens are charged for goods and services, and the collection of taxes. Constitutional and administrative law concern how governments are run, and the responsibilities of the courts and the government.

A fundamental question is how a society should balance the competing interests of preserving individual freedoms, promoting social justice and providing for the smooth transition of power in a government. Some legal systems are more effective in achieving these goals than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can oppress minorities or political opponents.