What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by societal or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior and protect individual rights. A person who studies law can work in a variety of different fields, such as criminal justice, forensic science, or corporate governance. In general, studying law involves understanding how these systems of rules are created, enforced, and interpreted by the judicial system.

The precise definition of law is a subject of longstanding debate. Some scholars, such as legal philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes, argue that the term “law” must include the act of a participatory observer assigning true or false values to mathematically undecidable propositions; this process is called experience and forms the building block of law. However, this approach lacks the rigor of empirical proof that would enable the judicial system to determine whether law is a good thing or not.

For the vast majority of nations, the legal system is a mix of enacted statutes and judicial interpretation and jurisprudence. The latter includes a tradition of case law and a rich library of legal maxims (called “brocards”). Some law is explicitly religious in nature, such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia. Other laws are based on historical experience, such as the Roman code or the medieval English common law.

In addition to establishing standards of behaviour, the law also serves to resolve disputes. For example, property law determines the ownership of land and other assets, while family law enables people to settle their marital affairs. Laws can also protect people from unfair treatment by police or government officials.

Even in the most well-ordered societies, conflicts arise. For instance, if two people want to claim the same piece of land, law allows them to settle their dispute peacefully through a court hearing or agreement. The law can also punish those who break the law, for instance by fining them or sending them to prison.

The judicial system is a key pillar of our society. Its noble ideal is that every person is equal before the law and is afforded a fair trial with impartial judges. However, this can be impossible to achieve when a poor man charged with a crime is left without a lawyer to defend him.

In some countries, the judicial system has evolved to meet these challenges. For example, the US Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury and to have their cases heard in a language they understand. In other nations, the judicial system has adopted the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees many of these same rights to all citizens.