What Is Law?

What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are created and are enforceable by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Some legal systems are based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia. Many are derived from ancient legal codes such as the Roman Code, which was later adapted by medieval jurists. Modern law is also influenced by academic disciplines such as philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

In a legal system, the main goals of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities and promote social justice. In practice, however, laws often fall short of their intended goal. For example, authoritarian regimes may use the law to suppress dissent and oppress minorities. Moreover, even democratic governments may be corrupt and exercise excessive power. These problems are inherent in any type of government, and they can be minimized only by separating powers into distinct branches with limited authority to govern (i.e., the legislative, executive and judicial branches).

Legal systems vary widely in their structure and complexity. Some are based on common law, which recognizes that decisions of courts are on equal footing with statutes passed through the legislature and regulations issued by the executive branch of the government. Other legal systems are based on civil law, which puts more emphasis on detailed legal statutes and less on court case precedent. In either case, a court’s decision is binding on lower courts unless it can be shown that the decision is inconsistent with previous cases or based upon significant new facts or circumstances.

In addition to civil and criminal law, there are several other areas of law:

International law addresses relations between nations through treaties. Space law deals with human activities in outer space, environmental law addresses issues such as pollution and the preservation of ecosystems, and tax law involves regulations about value added taxes, corporate taxes and income taxes.

Law can be applied to almost any situation:

For example, labor law addresses the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union; property law addresses ownership of land and personal property; family law covers marriage and divorce proceedings; and transactional law encompasses the laws concerning business and money.

The study of law is a broad subject and encompasses many fields, including the history of law, philosophical theories of the origin and purpose of law, political science and sociology. In addition, lawyers must complete a lengthy educational program to gain the necessary expertise in the field of law. Lawyers must pass an examination to become licensed, which is regulated by the state or by an independent regulating body such as a bar association or law society. To qualify for the examination, lawyers must complete a rigorous educational program leading to a bachelor’s degree in law or another relevant field and have obtained a law degree, usually the Juris Doctor.