What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behaviour. Its precise definition has been a subject of longstanding debate and it has been described as both a science and an art. Legal systems vary greatly from one country to the next, and there are a variety of different branches of law.

A wide range of issues are addressed by the law, spanning all areas of life in some way or another. Some of these include:

The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, serving as a mediator of relations between people. It imposes restrictions and limits what people may do, but it also enables them to achieve a fair and reasonable standard of living.

For example, a criminal law system punishes those who commit crimes and it helps to deter the commission of further offences by ensuring that those who have been prosecuted are held accountable. Likewise, civil law governs the resolution of lawsuits between citizens and enables individuals to seek justice and compensation. The law also establishes a number of core human rights, such as the right to a fair trial and to privacy.

The study of law provides an important source for scholarly inquiry into history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. It raises important questions concerning the nature of power, equality and justice, and it is an area of considerable debate. Some philosophers of law have sought to define the concept of law as a distinct kind of activity that cannot be reduced to other forms of knowledge such as empirical science (e.g., the law of gravity) or even social science (e.g., the laws of supply and demand in economics).

Other philosophers have argued that the law is essentially immanent, that it exists because bad actions are expected to be punished and that this punishment creates incentives for good behaviour. Such a view has been called the ontological understanding of the law.

The law pervades every aspect of human life and can be broadly grouped into three main categories: labour law, property law and criminal law. Labour law covers the regulation of the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade unions, while property law encompasses a person’s rights to ownership of tangible goods such as land or buildings. Finally, criminal law deals with a person’s right to a fair trial and the admissibility of evidence in court. The law is also an important source of moral guidance for the majority of religious communities, forming part of the halakha in Judaism and the Islamic Sharia in Islam. The latter provides for a more detailed legal system, and is developed through a combination of Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent. It is often based on religious precepts, as in the Jewish halakha and the Christian canon law. However, religious laws generally require extensive human elaboration to make them applicable in a secular context.