What is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a country or community recognises as regulating the actions of its members. Usually these are enforced by means of a police force or a court system. It influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It governs human rights, property, contracts, business and international relations, whilst addressing moral issues such as justice and morality. It is a vast area of study with many different branches.

Laws may be written or tacit, and they cover a wide range of subjects. They are a means of resolving disputes, providing compensation and imposing penalties. For example, tort law covers wrongful injury caused by accidents such as car crashes or defamation. Criminal law punishes those who break the rules imposed by the state and can include crimes against the state itself, such as murder. Other areas of law cover the activities of banks and other financial institutions, ensuring that their businesses are conducted fairly and within accepted standards. Regulation laws are a form of law that dictates what private companies must do to meet minimum standards for public services, such as water or electricity.

Generally, laws are created by a legislative body such as a parliament or congress that is elected (chosen) by the people of a country to provide the overall framework for a society. Governments then make further laws to cover specific matters of detail and to ensure that citizens have enough freedom to choose what they want to do. These laws are then enforced by courts or police and if people break the rules they can be punished.

There are many different approaches to the study of law, with some embracing a philosophical basis for its existence. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham believe that the laws of a society are commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign that people have learned to obey, whilst natural lawyers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argue that natural law reflects an innate sense of right and wrong.

In legal systems such as common law, decisions made by courts are recognised as “law” and on an equal footing with statutes and executive regulations. This is based on the principle of stare decisis, whereby the rulings of higher courts bind lower courts in the same jurisdiction to assure consistency. It is a complex process of research and analysis to ascertain what the law in a particular case is, with more recent decisions and those by higher courts carrying more weight than earlier ones. The law may also be set by a constitution, which gives the supreme authority of a nation or state final say on matters of policy and direction.