What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules a society or government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. The term is also used to describe the people who work in this system, such as police officers and lawyers. The study of law is referred to as jurisprudence, and it covers many different areas of legal practice and theory. For example, criminal law focuses on the rules that govern the prosecution of crimes and their punishment, while civil law focuses on the procedures for legal disputes between citizens and businesses. International law outlines the rules that apply across national boundaries, and family law concerns the arrangements for marriage, divorce and child custody.

A nation’s laws can serve a variety of purposes, including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting minorities against majorities and regulating social change. Some legal systems are better at serving these objectives than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace, but it can also oppress its own citizens and suppress opposition. In contrast, a democratic regime may promote the freedom of individuals and allow for peaceful political change.

In the past, law was often developed through custom and case law, and the rules were handed down by a monarch, an emperor or other powerful person. Later, as nations developed bureaucracies to manage their economies and societies, they developed a more formalized legal system that could be written down and enforced by courts. These legal systems have a wide variety of characteristics, but most include clear expressions of rights and duties, advance disclosure of rules, and rules left open to interpretation and creative jurisprudence.

The concept of law has undergone a number of changes over time, with the rise of social science and sociology providing new insights into the nature of legal systems and the role they play in human affairs. Max Weber, for example, reshaped thinking about the extension of state power over private citizens and the role of law in promoting that expansion. Contemporary developments in military and policing technology pose special challenges to the extension of the rule of law that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu never imagined.

The subject of law extends to virtually all aspects of human activity and includes many different areas of specialist study. The subjects are broadly grouped into three categories, although many areas of law intertwine and overlap: