What is Law?


Law is a framework created by social or governmental institutions to ensure that people live peacefully together. It is enforced through mechanisms that can punish those who break the rules. Its precise definition has been a matter of longstanding debate.

Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a wide variety of ways. It serves as a mediator of relations between people and is created in various ways: by a group legislature, leading to statutes; by a single legislator, in the form of ordinances or decrees; or by judges, resulting in case law. The legal system varies from country to country, with some employing a common law system, others a civil law system and others a religious or canon law system.

The complexities of law make it hard to define, but it can be seen as a set of rules that governs human conduct and behaviour. It includes a range of activities, such as the responsibilities and rights of property owners and tenants, the right to contract and the ability to sue and be sued. It covers a wide variety of subjects, such as labour law, criminal law and family law. It also includes the rules that determine which evidence will be admissible in court.

Different systems of laws exist in the world, with the most developed nation-states having a well-defined legal framework. However, this is not the case with all countries, and there are many legal issues that are still being debated in some areas.

A law can be a set of rules or a set of principles and is usually enforceable by a controlling authority, such as a sovereign state or a court. Some scholars argue that there are fundamental laws in nature, while other, such as John Austin’s utilitarian theory, suggest that a law reflects a desire for order and safety, backed by the threat of sanctions.

Holmes’s ontological understanding of law provides a different approach, whereby it is viewed as a flowing process. This means that as participants experience the consequences of their actions, their probability estimates are updated and law is defined anew.

Law has an extensive influence on people’s lives, and the complexity of the subject means that there are a huge number of articles that could be written about it. For an overview of the profession see legal training and professional ethics; for articles that explore specific laws see constitutional law; contract law; company law; criminal law; family law; property law; tort law; and trusts law. There are also articles that look at the relationship between law and the wider political system, including political ideology; government; politics; and the constitution. In addition, there are articles that examine the effect of law on the economy and culture, as well as those that consider the impact of law on a range of social issues.