What is Law?
Law is the body of rules that a society accepts as binding, and enforces through a controlling authority. It regulates behaviour, ensures that members of a community adhere to social or ethical norms, and resolves conflicts between individuals. It has a wide range of applications and affects almost every aspect of people’s lives, including their rights, relationships and property. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in countless ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.
The definition of law is complex, but it can be broadly defined as a set of rules that a society accepts as being binding on its members. These rules govern what a person may do or not do, and can be enforced by mechanisms such as courts, prisons and fines. There are many different branches of law, but it is helpful to divide them into three categories:
Contract law deals with the exchange of goods, services and money. It includes everything from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law deals with the ownership and control of tangible assets such as houses and cars, and intangible assets such as shares and bank accounts. It also covers issues such as bankruptcy and divorce proceedings.
Criminal law is the study of crimes and the punishment of those who commit them. It includes investigations, trial proceedings, appeals and rehabilitative programs. It has a large impact on society because it helps to deter crime, protect society from harmful activities and punishes those who do wrong.
The concept of law is a broad one, and legal systems differ widely across the world. Some laws are based on customs, such as the traditions of a particular culture, while others are created and enforced by the state. Laws can be created by a legislature, resulting in statutes, by the executive, through decrees and regulations, or by judicial decisions, known as case law.
A key feature of law is its normative nature, which distinguishes it from empirical science (such as the force of gravity) or social science (like the laws of demand and supply in economics). It dictates what people should do, rather than how they should behave or why they do something.
The earliest theories of law were utilitarian, and revolved around the idea that the purpose of laws is to achieve maximum utility. Later, philosophers such as Hans Kelsen created the ‘pure theory of law’ which states that it does not seek to describe what must occur, but defines certain rules that individuals have to abide by. Other theories of law are founded upon religion, philosophy and ethics. For example, natural law theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau believe that a person’s behaviour should be guided by moral and unchanging laws of nature. In modern times, the concept of natural law has fallen out of favour. The concept of law continues to evolve in the light of new scientific, technological and philosophical developments.