What Is Law?


Law is a body of rules established by a controlling authority for the purpose of regulating a society. These rules are enforced by means of mechanisms created and regulated by the state, such as the police, courts or other agencies. It can also refer to a set of principles governing a particular area of human activity, such as contracts, labour or property.

Law has many facets and is found in a variety of societies, from ancient civilizations to modern industrial economies. Law can be as simple as a customary rule of behaviour, or it may be as complex as a system of international treaties or domestic constitutional laws.

Among the most important functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain social stability, protect individuals and groups from oppressive majorities, and facilitate orderly social change. Different legal systems accomplish these tasks differently. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and preserve the status quo but will tend to oppress minorities and opposing political factions. A democracy, on the other hand, will often promote social justice and provide a framework for peaceful co-existence of different cultural groups within a nation.

The practice of law is regulated by governments and independent governing bodies such as bar associations, legal councils or law societies. Modern lawyers gain a distinct professional identity through specified procedures, including passing a qualifying examination and being formally appointed to the legal profession by a court.

Law is studied in a number of fields, such as criminal law, administrative law, civil rights, contract law, property law, constitutional law, and labour law. These subjects are usually taught in conjunction with each other, as the relationships between them are complex and interdependent. For example, employment law covers the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union, and includes collective bargaining regulation and the right to strike. Evidence law covers which materials are admissible in courts for the building of a case.

A significant aspect of the study of law is how it relates to morality and philosophy. Bentham’s utilitarian theories held that law reflects the needs of a society, and is enforceable through mechanisms backed by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other natural lawyers, on the other hand, argued that law reflects the innate moral laws of nature.

The development of law is an ongoing process. It is continually adapted to changes in the environment and disputes over the legitimacy of government. As a result, the legal systems of the world today contain elements that are both ancient, such as coroners’ courts, and very modern, such as electronic law reports and judges using laptop computers. Religious jurisprudence is often an intrinsic part of the law and draws on concepts such as sharia or halakha, and uses techniques such as Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and Ijma (consensus). See also constitutional law; civil rights; criminal law; and family law.