What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and protect the rights and liberties of individuals and communities. Law may be state-enforced through statutes, decrees or regulations, or privately enforceable through contracts or the common law. Law is also the discipline of legal studies and practice, which typically requires a specific educational qualification (such as a Bachelor of Laws, a Master of Laws or a Juris Doctor degree) and often a professional membership with a regulating body or society (e.g. a bar association or bar council).

The precise nature of law has been debated for centuries, with its proper place in a liberal democracy being of particular concern to many. There are various definitions, but the general idea of law is that it establishes standards, maintains order, resolves disputes and protects rights and liberties. The laws of a country differ considerably between nations, reflecting the different historical and political landscapes that have created each nation.

In modern terms, law is seen as a product of the scientific method: that is, it is a rule or principle of an observed natural process whose consequences are predictable from an understanding of that process. It thus possesses an objective quality that is often contrasted with a moral, ethical or religious law that is of a prescriptive rather than descriptive nature: the law of self-preservation, for example.

A more problematic issue is the extent to which the law is influenced by a judge’s own values and prejudices. This is illustrated by the difficulty of obtaining reliable betting odds on whether a poor defendant will receive a fair trial, or by the sensitivity of judges to their own perceptions of justice, particularly when it comes to deciding cases that may have an emotional impact on them.

Laws govern a range of activities, with the most important areas being contract law (which regulates agreements between people), property law (which defines the rights and duties of owners of tangible goods and other possessions) and regulatory law, which governs activities such as transport, water, energy and the financial markets.

The development of law is closely linked with politics, as the laws of a nation are determined by who has power to create and enforce them. This is why the existence of a rule of law is so important in a democratic society: ensuring that the rules are fair and impartial allows for free and informed debate, and can help prevent corruption, discrimination or oppression. The absence of a rule of law can lead to anarchy and civil war. It can also lead to oppressive governments that are unable to maintain peace and protect minorities against majorities, or promote social change. Such a government may be popular with its population, but it is unlikely to gain international support. In such situations, revolutions are often the result of the desire to gain more power and less oppression, resulting in new political-legal systems.