What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate.

The law has many purposes, but the principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. The laws of a country can be made by the legislature, resulting in statutes; by executive decrees or regulations; or by judges through precedent and case law. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements, which are alternatives to standard court litigation.

Some academics and thinkers have specialized in the study of law, which is broadly referred to as legal theory. Some have developed theories that explain how and why laws are made, while others have analyzed the practical implications of particular laws or contested issues. The field of law includes subfields such as constitutional law, criminal law, family law, immigration law, property law, and international law.

Most governments have a written constitution that establishes the fundamental principles of their political system, including the rule of law. The principle of law is central to the operation of a democracy and ensures that government officials are accountable to the people, and that citizens have due process when their rights are violated or the public good is threatened.

Even in a well-ordered society, disputes and conflicts occur. In such cases, the law provides a way for people to resolve their differences without violence and to determine who has the rightful ownership of property or resources. The law can also protect the health and safety of the population by imposing safety regulations on businesses and prohibiting certain drugs.

While some laws may appear to be purely practical, they often reflect a moral stance. For example, the prohibition against insider trading is based on a concern for fairness and a sense of social responsibility. Likewise, the concept of due process is a basic ethical principle that safeguards the rights and dignity of all persons.

In addition to constitutional law and criminal law, other areas of law include:

Most countries of the world have a civil legal tradition, which is derived from the legal codes of continental European nations. Some of the countries that were formerly colonized by these countries, such as Africa and Asia, have kept some elements of this legal system. These traditions can also coexist with other legal systems, such as the common law, Islamic law or customary law. In some cases, such as Japan, the civil law has been supplanted by common law or other Western-based legal systems. Other countries, such as India and Indonesia, have a mixed legal system that includes both common law and civil law elements.