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 topic of intense debate and many books have been written on the subject. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in countless ways. It can be applied to the whole of human existence or to specific areas such as family, property, contracts, business, criminal justice and more. Law is also the name of several professions – notably lawyers, judges and police officers – who work to defend the rights of individuals, settle disputes and punish wrongdoers.

Different philosophers and groups have developed competing ideas of what law is or should be. For example, some people believe that law is simply power backed by threats. Thus, if a sovereign has the power to create arbitrary laws that are “bad,” they are still “law” because they can be enforced by threats. Others, however, argue that law reflects morality and imposes an obligation to obey a sovereign’s commands. The philosophies of utilitarianism and natural law are two examples of schools of thought on the nature of law.

Most jurisdictions have a legal system to maintain order and provide justice for its citizens. This system includes courts to settle disputes, police to prevent and investigate crime and laws to ensure a fair society. Those laws are either created by legislatures, resulting in statutes and ordinances, or by executive agencies, such as the presidency or cabinet, or judge-created through judicial precedent, known as case law in common law jurisdictions. The law is also applied by individuals, resulting in legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements (alternative dispute resolution to standard court litigation).

The main functions of law are to preserve individual rights, maintain social stability and promote orderly social change. However, some legal systems are better at achieving these goals than others. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and preserve the status quo but it will often oppress minorities or political opponents. It may do so under the guise of keeping the law or preserving security, but in reality it is exercising its power over its subjects and violating human rights.

Other functions of the law are to ensure a safe and peaceful society by preventing wars, providing medical services, resolving disputes between individuals and ensuring that public officials carry out their duties. This is done through civil law, which covers issues such as automobile accidents and defamation of character, and criminal law, which addresses offenses against the state itself. Some areas of the law are more specialized, such as immigration law and constitutional law. Other areas include family law, business and transactional law and biolaw.