What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules established and enforced by a government to ensure that everyone behaves in a way that preserves the social order. It affects politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways. The precise definition of law is a subject of much debate, but it usually involves a set of regulations that define rights and duties in certain situations. If the laws are breached, sanctions can be imposed. Laws may be made by a legislature, creating statutes; by an executive branch, resulting in decrees and regulations; or by courts, which create binding case precedent. Private individuals can also create legal contracts and other agreements that have the effect of law, although these are not necessarily enforceable by a government.

A nation’s laws can be influenced by its constitution, whether written or tacit; its historical experience; its social and cultural context; its social class structure; its institutions for the defence of human rights and civil liberties; its military, security and police force; and its transitions of power. These influence the principles, values and ideals enshrined in law. Laws can be interpreted in many different ways by different communities, and these interpretations can change over time.

In modern societies, laws serve many purposes: to keep the peace, maintain the status quo and protect minorities against majorities; to promote individual freedoms and social justice; to facilitate economic development and trade; to provide security; and to govern a country within its own borders and across international boundaries. Some systems of law fulfil these functions more effectively than others. An authoritarian regime, for example, may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but oppress its citizens and undermine democracy.

Each area of law has subfields: for instance, contract law concerns agreements to exchange goods and services; criminal law deals with offences against a state or its citizens, such as murder and fraud; tort law compensates victims for their losses, from an automobile accident to defamation. Labour law includes the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and union and covers issues such as job security, health and safety and the right to strike. International law examines relationships between nations-states, and biolaw is the intersection of the law and life sciences.

People who study law are called lawyers or solicitors, and they practice the law by advising clients about their legal options, representing them in court cases, drafting contracts and other documents and providing other legal services. Many people want to work in law, and it is a rewarding career choice that can lead to varied and challenging opportunities. However, it is important for those interested in pursuing a career in law to take the time to understand the deep dimensions of this complex discipline. For example, it is essential to understand the relationship between law and power: how and why laws are created; how judges, legislators and other members of the judicial system make decisions; and what checks and balances exist in a system of law.