What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules that a country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It may be created by a legislature through statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent in common law jurisdictions. Laws are enforced by courts and, depending on the nature of the case, can be interpreted to impose a wide range of penalties, including criminal and civil sanctions.

The precise definition of ‘law’ is a matter of debate, but it typically includes the concept of a social institution that imposes enforceable commands on members of society, with sanctions applied to those who fail to comply. These sanctions can be punishments, incentives or privileges. Law is a highly complex social phenomenon, and the interaction between different laws, judicial interpretations, economic interests, and moral values makes the field of legal study extremely rich and varied.

While laws can be created by any number of institutions, governments usually have the most influence. This is because they have the power to make laws, to punish those who break them, and to reward those who obey them. In some cases, this power is exercised by democratically elected parliaments; in others, the rulers of a nation-state are able to create and impose laws through military or other means of force.

In most of the world, law is a central part of national life, and is a key element in a state’s authority over its citizens. It is the legal framework that underpins a country’s constitution and its political structures; it defines the rights of its people, including their freedom of speech, assembly and religion; and it dictates the procedures for settling disputes.

Laws also set out the principles and processes that govern particular aspects of human activity, such as commerce, transportation and travel, property, family affairs, maternity and childbirth. Laws can be created by a government, private individuals or by international organisations. Those created by a government are known as statutory law, while those established by judges are called common or constitutional law.

The study of law is known as jurisprudence, and those who practice law are lawyers. The profession is regulated by both governmental and independent governing bodies, and modern-day lawyers must complete specific educational requirements before becoming qualified to practise. This enables them to establish a distinct professional identity, distinguish themselves from non-lawyers and maintain high ethical standards. For more information on the training and professional development of lawyers, see the articles on legal education, the legal profession and legal ethics. For an examination of the relationship between law and political systems, see politics; law and the state; and law, philosophy of. For more on the legal issues arising from war and military action, see international law; and law of armed conflict. For law relating to religious activities, see canon law; Jewish law (Halakhah); and Islamic law (Sharia). For more on the relationship between law and social restrictions, see censorship; crime; and war.