What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that form a framework to ensure a peaceful society and resolve disputes. It is enforced by the state, and punishments can be imposed if the laws are broken or breached. Law can take many forms and is applied in a wide variety of situations, such as contracts and property. The law can be seen as having four major purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

Different people have different views on what constitutes law. For example, John Austin defines law as “commands backed by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign to men, as political subjects.” Other theories are also available, such as the natural school of thought, which asserts that laws are essentially moral and unchangeable, or the legal realist theory, which asserts that law is simply a collection of rules.

Modern legal systems vary greatly. In some, such as the common law system in the United States, decisions by courts are explicitly acknowledged as law on equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations, known as the doctrine of stare decisis. This approach allows a judge’s decision to bind subsequent cases in the same jurisdiction, and can help make sure that similar disputes reach similar conclusions.

Other systems have a more restricted definition of law, and treat the law as a body of rules that governs specific topics like business transactions or the military. These types of laws are often called statutory law.

The laws of a particular jurisdiction may vary widely, depending on the social and economic circumstances of the time, and the way a government or legislature decides to interpret its constitution or other founding documents. The legal system in a region may reflect its culture, history and the interests of the major groups of people who live there. For example, the Indian legal tradition is largely Hindu and Islamic, while Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Hong Kong have adopted the English common law system.

Many branches of law cover topics ranging from employment law, which deals with the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, to family law, which deals with marriage, divorce and children’s rights. Property law covers people’s rights to tangible property, such as homes and cars, and intangible assets such as shares of stock or bank accounts. Tort law protects people from unfair or deceptive acts, such as automobile accidents or libel.

Some fields of law are very technical, and require a high level of education to understand. In general, people who practice law must have a university degree in a relevant field, pass an examination to become licensed and complete supervised practical training under a senior lawyer. In some countries, lawyers must also have a professional code of conduct and are regulated by a government or independent regulating body such as a bar association or law society. The law can be a very complex and powerful tool to shape social change.