What Is Law?

What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules imposed by social or governmental institutions and enforced by courts to regulate behavior. It has many purposes but four are particularly important: setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

The precise definition of law is controversial. One view is that it consists of “a system of precepts established and enforced by public authority for the general good, typically based on principles of natural justice and equity.” Another view is that law includes any written or unwritten custom or tradition that serves an extrinsic purpose. It may also include rules that are not enforceable by court decisions but have been accepted as moral or social conventions.

As a social science, law studies human societies and their structures. It examines the processes by which laws are created and enforced, and tries to understand the factors that influence people’s behaviour and their relationships. It also looks at the impact of different legal systems, and how they relate to each other.

In the broadest sense, law encompasses all the rules that govern a society or activity, whether they are set by a legislature (legislative law), by judges in a court of law (judicial law), or by self-regulating groups such as professional bodies. It also covers the disciplinary actions taken against those who break the law.

While most law is created by a political authority, some is based on religious precepts. In the case of Islamic law this is called Shari’ah; the Jewish Halakha and Christian canon law are likewise sources of law in some communities.

Legal systems differ significantly from one country to the next, with some using common law while others are civil law. The latter use a system of codes, based on categories and concepts derived from Roman law, supplemented with local custom or culture.

In both common and civil law, the decision of a judge in one case can bind other judges and impose precedent on future cases. This principle is known as stare decisis. It is an essential feature of the rule of law and is one of the principal reasons why law is considered a social science.

The study of law is increasingly popular with students and the professions which advise people on legal matters, represent them in court or give decisions or punishments. Articles in this section cover a wide range of topics, from an examination of the history of law and legal systems to a critique of recent legislative changes. The language used in these articles can be technical and assumes some previous knowledge, but this reflects the fact that the legal profession tends to attract people who are very aware of current legal issues. Similarly, articles on the subject of law in the news frequently comment on changes to legislation. This can be especially true in areas which have a high level of awareness amongst the general public, such as consumer law and competition law.