What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a country or community recognises as regulating the actions of its members. It is enforced by a controlling authority, typically through penalties. Law includes both public and private laws, and may cover a range of subjects from crime and punishment to international treaties and family law.

People use the law to decide what is right and wrong, for example in setting standards for driving, deciding which companies can provide utilities such as gas, water or electricity and imposing minimum wages. Governments also make laws to protect their citizens from harm, and to regulate economic activities like banking, financial markets and sport. Other areas covered by law include the environment, labour and property. Some countries have different systems of interpreting and applying the law. The United States uses a common law system in which decisions by judges are recorded and compiled into case law, while other nations adopt civil law systems based on legislative statutes and judicial precedent (‘stare decisis’).

The origins of law are complex. Historically, philosophers have disagreed about the nature of law. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed that law is a collection of commandments, backed by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign, which people have a habit of obeying because it is in their best interests. Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have argued that law reflects a set of moral and unchanging laws of nature.

In modern times, the extension of the state into areas of private life has raised concerns about the role of law and accountability to those it governs. Social restrictions imposed through the law, such as censorship, drug use and prison sentences, are often not publicly explained or transparent. The power of the police and military to enforce the law has become a matter of public concern as well.

Lawyers and jurists study the rules of law, and are known as attorneys or solicitors in the US and barristers in England. They are sometimes called on to argue a case in court or help draft legislation. Other professionals who work with law are paralegals and legal secretaries. Business lawyers specialise in transactions, while litigators take cases to court. A specialist area of law is biolaw, which combines law with the biological sciences. Other specialisms include aviation law, employment law, maritime law and tax law.