What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules that governs and regulates a society or group. Laws can be created or enforced by social or governmental institutions, as in the case of state-enforced laws, or they may be based on common agreement among individuals, as in the case of contracts and other agreements that are legally binding. Laws can also be derived from social or natural process, as in the case of the law of gravity.

The law is the basis of healthy communities of justice, opportunity, and peace. While different legal systems and people have very different ideas about what law is, all systems of law are built on a common foundation of four universal principles: accountability, just law, open government, and accessible and impartial justice.

The precise definition of law is a longstanding and controversial topic. Traditionally, it has been defined as a set of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. However, this traditional understanding of law is increasingly being challenged as the law is viewed as both an art and a science. In particular, a growing number of scholars have emphasized that the law has an ontological nature.

For example, Holmes argued that the law is not simply a system of rules but rather a “flowing process of bettabilitarian bets” (p. 29). A person assigns true or false values to mathematically undecidable propositions, he said, and as those choices lead to outcomes, the law flows, making each experience part of an ongoing, probabilistic process.

A growing number of scholars have argued that this flow of experiences, each shaped by the particulars of the situation and the values and beliefs of the participants, forms the substance of the law. This idea of law as a living and evolving process is known as natural law theory.

A key concept in the study of law is the principle of stare decisis, which means that judges and courts must follow previous decisions unless there are compelling reasons to change them. This principle is especially important in court cases where the same issue has been brought before the courts many times. In such cases, each new decision builds on the prior ones, creating a body of caselaw that is known as precedent. In addition, rulings made by higher courts, such as the supreme court of a jurisdiction, are generally considered to be binding on all lower courts in that jurisdiction.