What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that regulates conduct in a society and enforces it through penalties. It can be written or unwritten, and varies by country. Some legal systems rely on statutes and others, such as the common law system in the United States, use judicial decisions. In the latter, a judge’s decision is considered binding and can influence later cases. Other systems impose a uniform code that is not subject to individual interpretation, such as civil laws in Japan or criminal codes in Germany.

Law encompasses a large number of fields and can be divided into categories such as contract law, criminal law, family law, and property law. It can also be defined philosophically, as in Holmes’s ontological view that the law is “the accumulated sum of bets which good men make upon expected results.”

The purpose of the law is to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, promote social justice, and provide orderly social change. Some nations, notably authoritarian ones, use the law to oppress minorities and their political opponents. The framers of the U.S. Constitution created a constitutional system to limit this power and prevent one person or group from becoming “a tyrant.”

Other areas of law include administrative law, antitrust law, bankruptcy law, and criminology. The latter is a subset of jurisprudence that studies crime and punishment, as well as the relationships between society, criminals, and police.

Legal terms often encountered include arraignment, indictment, probation, sequester, and statement. An arraignment is a procedure in which a defendant is brought before the court and told of the charges against him or her; an indictment is a formal charge issued by a grand jury that there is evidence sufficient to justify a trial for a crime; and probation is a sentence alternative to imprisonment, under which a convicted person is released under supervision until the end of his or her term.

Moreover, an individual can sue another for damages under tort law. Another area of law is environmental law, which regulates the disposal of waste. Banking and financial law, meanwhile, sets minimum standards for the amount of capital that a bank must hold and rules about best practice for investment to reduce the risk of economic crises like the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Competition law, a growing field that traces back to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade law, is used to control businesses that manipulate markets or otherwise defraud consumers.