What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that is created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as both an art and a science. It is a central aspect of modern society and has many facets, including criminal law, contracts, property law, labor law and legal philosophy.

A societal system of laws can serve one or more of four main purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberty and rights. It is these fundamental principles that are most important to any legal system, regardless of its political structure.

The laws of a society are usually created by a legislature or executive, and then enforced by the courts. Laws can be made by a group legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent, known as stare decisis, in common law jurisdictions. The laws of a nation can also be created by private individuals through contractual agreements. Private laws can be binding or not, and they can be either civil or criminal.

Criminal law concerns punishment for crimes and the protection of individual rights. Civil law concerns the rights and duties of citizens, such as the right to a fair trial. Laws governing the practice of law, such as evidence law, concern which materials are admissible in court for a case to be built.

Other areas of law include air law, bankruptcy law, carriage of goods, family law, labour law, maritime law and medical jurisprudence. Law can be international or domestic, and it may refer to specific subjects such as terrorism, immigration, copyright, libel or taxation. It can also be used to refer to the profession of law, which is a career choice increasingly appealing to young people.

The study of law is called jurisprudence, and it can be at the forefront of public policy, technology and scientific research. It can also be at the heart of social, economic and cultural controversy. For example, laws governing the use of genetically modified organisms can have significant implications for agriculture and food production, while laws governing the conduct of war may have a profound impact on the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. It is also possible for laws to be a source of social conflict, as with issues such as censorship, crime and punishment, or religion. For more information on the role of laws in society, see article; constitution; ideology; political party; and political system. Alternatively, for an explanation of legal systems and the nature of the law, see Legal system; and Law, philosophy of. For an examination of legal training and careers, see Legal profession; and Law, education of. For an exposition of social restrictions and their enforcement, see Crime and punishment; and Censorship. For a discussion of the relationship between the law and social justice, see Law, social justice.