What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules imposed by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Law imposes a hierarchy of rights and duties and carries with it sanctions and punishments for those who transgress the law. Law also sets standards and provides protection for people’s liberties, assets, property and bodies. It is a vital and complex subject which raises fundamental issues of equality, justice and freedom. The study of law is a core area of human inquiry, inspiring legal historians, philosophers and economists.

Legal systems differ widely, but there are some key points of commonality. They are generally based on the idea that laws are publicly promulgated and independently adjudicated. They aim to ensure adherence to principles such as supremacy of the law, equal application of the law, public participation in decision-making, legal certainty and non-arbitrariness.

The main areas of law cover a range of subjects, from the individual to the corporate. Employment law, for example, includes the tripartite industrial relations of worker, employer and trade union. Contract law covers agreements between parties ranging from buying a bus ticket to trading options on the derivatives market. Property law defines the rights and duties of people over tangible possessions such as land or buildings and intangible assets such as money and shares. Criminal law deals with offences against a state, whether it is theft or defamation.

Almost all countries have some form of law. In some countries, law is a complex mix of common and civil laws, while in others, it is more uniformly applied through a system of codes and statutes. Common law courts operate under the principle of stare decisis, whereby previous court decisions bind subsequent cases. This is in contrast to civil law systems which publish detailed legislative codes and provide a framework for judges to apply.

There are numerous different branches of law, with new specialisms constantly developing. For example, there are now specialists in internet law, copyright law, environmental law and taxation law. The development of global markets and the growth of electronic commerce is causing many countries to reform their laws and regulations.

Those who work in law are called lawyers. The profession is regulated in most jurisdictions, and there are a number of qualifications that a lawyer must achieve before being admitted to the bar. These include a degree in law and the successful completion of a written examination. The profession is usually overseen by a state or independent regulating body such as a law society, bar association or bar council. This regulates its professional ethics, conduct and status. It is a highly respected and prestigious career. Many young people are drawn to it as a means of becoming rich and powerful, and achieving fame and prestige. However, the profession is not without its problems, particularly as it relates to the pay gap and working conditions of women in law firms. The gender gap in the profession remains one of the biggest obstacles to greater diversity in the field.