What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules and customs established by a particular community that is binding upon all members. It is enforced by penalties imposed by a controlling authority. Law also refers to the profession and academic field that studies this body of rules.

There is no single definition of law, as many schools of thought have varying views of the nature and importance of legal systems. For example, utilitarian thinkers such as John Austin argued that the purpose of law is to protect individuals and maintain order by imposing sanctions (e.g. fines or imprisonment) on those who violate the law. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others emphasized the role of morality and a natural law in determining what was and wasn’t legal.

Other schools of legal thought emphasize the rights and duties of both government and the governed. The natural-law school, which has been influential in America, emphasizes the concept of “unalienable” rights that the government can’t take away from citizens, as well as a government that must be voted into office and out of power through a democratic process. More recent writings, such as those in the CLS school, emphasize long-standing patterns of domination by wealthy people over others and of men over women, and suggest that the law should promote equitable relationships between people.

The most common functions of law include establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberty and rights. The various branches of law reflect these broad purposes:

Banking and financial law regulates agreements to exchange money or services. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible property, including real estate, books, and cars, as well as bank accounts and shares of stock. Labor law studies the relationship between workers, employers and trade unions and includes worker’s rights, such as job security and a minimum wage. Government regulation encompasses such issues as environmental law, food safety and public utilities, such as energy, water and telecommunications.

The particular legal system of a country or region depends on the historical origins of the region and its interaction with Western culture. For instance, England and the United States have a common-law tradition that relies on judicial decisions instead of legislative statutes. Other countries, such as Japan, have a civil law tradition that relies on codes that judges follow to ensure consistent and predictable results. Legal systems also differ in their approach to the interpretation of international treaties, as well as their ability to adapt to social change.