What Is Law?

What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that governs and controls human behaviour. Its precise definition is debated, but a key element of its role is to establish standards and maintain order, reward and punish actions that respect or violate these standards, protect liberties and rights and resolve disputes. The term also implies an authority to enforce these rules. Law is the product of a society’s cultural, political and economic structure, which can be seen in its rules, customs and beliefs about what is right or wrong. It is the basis of social order and coercion, and its power to control is a central feature in most societies.

Legal systems differ, and each serves a different purpose for society. It may be used to regulate the economy, keep a state in peace and the status quo, protect minorities against majorities or facilitate social change, among other purposes. An authoritarian government, for example, may be able to achieve some of these objectives by imposing its will on all members of the population.

In modern democratic societies, laws are made by groups of politicians in a legislature (parliament or congress), elected by the people to be their representatives. This group decides on a constitution to set the overall framework for society and makes further laws, known as statutes, to provide detail about specific aspects of the society. The laws are interpreted and enforced by courts, which follow the principle of precedent, meaning that decisions in similar cases have to be consistent with previous rulings.

A number of special branches of law exist, for instance, family law covers divorces and custody of children. Labour law focuses on the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade unions and includes regulation of collective bargaining, wage rates and workers’ rights to strike. Commercial law involves the rules that apply to companies and trusts, such as taxation and company law, intellectual property (copyright, patent and trademark) law, land law and tort law.

In some jurisdictions, such as the United States and several European countries, law is enforced by an independent constitutional institution, a court. This system of justice has been influenced by a variety of cultural and historical sources, including the Roman legal tradition; medieval Islamic jurisprudence; and European common law, which evolved in Britain and other former colonies. Other jurisdictions have established their own legal traditions, which can include religious sources. Nevertheless, most legal systems share some features that allow them to function effectively. These features are: