What Is Law?

Law is a discipline and profession concerned with the set of rules, practices and customs that define what is right or wrong in particular societies. These rules are enforced by a controlling authority such as the state, court or the supreme legislative body. This control is necessary to maintain peace and impose the social values of a society upon its citizens. It is also necessary for business to operate and for individuals to be held accountable for a variety of actions.

Unlike scientific laws (such as the law of gravity) or laws of sociology (such as the law of demand and supply), which are prescriptive in nature, laws in the legal context are descriptive and forward looking. They are bets on expected outcomes. Holmes, for example, argued that the judicial community could make much better bets on what will happen to a bad man if it used a scientific model to understand how the system works.

In a modern society, the main function of the law is to ensure that individuals do not harm one another. It can achieve this by providing protection, regulating commerce and settling disputes. It can also provide guidance on what is morally or ethically correct. For example, it is a crime to take someone else’s property, even if it belongs to you. Moreover, the legal system should be accessible to all and provide the opportunity for a fair hearing.

There are several important issues that distinguish the legal domain from other areas of life. First, it is a normative domain rather than an empirical or descriptive one. Second, the law is complex and has many layers. Third, it is not a single discipline; there are various fields that have contributed to the study of law, such as political science, history and economics.

The law has been influenced by philosophy, religion and psychology as well as by the natural sciences and sociology. These influences are evident in the different approaches to jurisprudence, such as Blackstone’s definition of common law or Max Weber’s view of the rise of bureaucracy.

A common distinction is between civil law jurisdictions where a central authority codifies and consolidates laws, and common law systems that allow judges to decide by precedent. However, this division is not necessarily absolute and common law systems do incorporate elements of civil law.

As the law has become more complex, so have the specialised fields that have sprung up around it. These include labour law, which deals with the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade unions; corporate law which deals with business structures and contracts; and criminal and civil procedure, which concern the rules that courts must follow as trials and appeals proceed. These specialisations have made the law more complicated to understand, but they have not diminished its power to shape politics, society and economics. Moreover, their influence extends into areas that writers such as Locke or Montesquieu did not consider. For example, the armed forces, the police and government agencies have powers that can impact on people’s daily lives in ways that traditional law writers did not foresee.