What Is Law?

Law is a body of rules set by a community or by a government that must be obeyed or face punishment. It is also a system of judging and settling disputes. Law has been a subject of scholarly inquiry for centuries, and is central to many fields such as philosophy, economics and sociology.

The precise definition of “law” is a matter of ongoing debate, but it generally means a body of regulations that are enforced by a state or society and which dictate what is permitted and prohibited in that context. It encompasses both enforceable rules (such as criminal and civil laws) and unenforceable guidelines, such as customary law or religious law. It also includes legal theory and the practice of law as a profession, with its own distinct discipline called legal study.

Among the most basic functions of law are keeping peace and maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities, promoting social justice and providing for orderly social change. However, these goals are not equally served by all legal systems. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but it may also oppress minorities and suppress political opponents.

In addition to regulating everyday life, laws also regulate business and finance. For example, banking law sets the minimum amount of capital that banks must hold, and securities law defines the rules for trading shares and other financial instruments. In some cases, such as when two people claim ownership of the same piece of property, the law can help to settle the dispute.

Law also regulates the activities of the military and police, and provides the framework for international relations. This is why it is important to have a well-functioning judicial system, which can interpret and apply the laws in a fair way.

One important aspect of law is that it must be general enough to cover a wide range of situations, yet specific enough to be clear and accessible. The philosopher Joseph Raz argued that this requirement is necessary for the legitimacy of a law and its ability to guide human action.

The development and implementation of law are the responsibility of legislative bodies, such as parliaments or assemblies in some countries. In some cases, legislators develop their own ideas for legislation or copy legislation from neighbouring jurisdictions. In other cases, organisations such as the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and the American Bar Association produce model legislation for legislatures to adopt. The protection and promotion of social and economic interests are also a driving force in the creation of laws, and these interest groups often become involved with the legislative process through lobbyists.