What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by governmental or social institutions to regulate behavior. It often involves the imposition of penalties to punish those who violate the rules. The precise nature of law is a subject of intense debate, but it generally encompasses both morality and reason. Law is distinct from other forms of knowledge, such as empirical science (as the law of gravity) or social science (as the law of supply and demand). In contrast to other knowledge systems, law has a normative character in that it prescribes how people should behave.

Law serves a number of important purposes in any nation, including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting individual rights, preserving social justice, and providing for orderly social change. Different nations use various legal systems to achieve these goals. A legal system may consist of a set of statutes, a set of case laws or a combination of both. Some countries, such as the United States, have a common law system in which judge-made decisions form the basis of law. Other countries, such as Japan, have a civil law system in which judges make decisions based on written codes.

In addition to the traditional subjects of law, there are numerous subfields that have specialized laws. For example, aviation law examines the rules that apply to air travel. Banking law outlines the regulations that apply to financial transactions. Labour law covers the tripartite relationship between employer, worker and trade union. Criminal law is the study of crime and punishment. Civil law focuses on such issues as property ownership, divorce and family law.

Those studying law must also consider the political structure of a nation, which in turn affects how the law is made and enforced. For example, a country with an authoritarian government can keep the peace but may oppress minorities or the political opposition. In contrast, a democracy requires checks and balances to prevent abuse of power.

The law also must be easily understood by citizens. It should be publically available and easily accessible, and it should provide equal access to the courts for all citizens. In addition, it should ensure that core human and procedural rights are protected and respected.

For more information on the law and its role in society, see legal education; lawyer; legal profession; and legal ethics.

The law is the product of political action, so its scope and quality vary widely from nation to nation. In most nations, the people or groups that have military or political power can control the creation and enforcement of the law. In some places, this results in stable democracies. In other cases, it leads to an unstable regime with autocratic overtones. Each year, revolutions occur in nations with existing political-legal authority, and aspirations for democratic rule or greater “rights” for citizens are a regular theme.