What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that regulates the conduct of a community and can be enforced by a controlling authority through penalties. It may be imposed by a state through its legislature in the form of statutes, or by the executive through decrees and regulations. It can also be imposed by judges in the form of decisions, through the “doctrine of stare decisis” (Latin for “to stand by previous judgments”) that establishes precedent and guides future cases. It can also be created by religious institutions, such as the Jewish Halakha and the Islamic Shariah.

While the precise definition of law is open to debate, the field encompasses many different types of laws and areas of legal practice. Some are general, such as contracts or torts, while others apply to specific groups of people. Examples of the former include property law, administrative law and labour law.

The purpose of law is to define standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights. The creation of law is influenced by a constitution, whether written or tacit, and the principles encoded within it. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, and serves as a mediator of relations between individuals.

In the United States, Congress enacts federal statutes in accordance with the Constitution, while the Supreme Court interprets them. The law of the United States is codified in the United States Code, a comprehensive collection of all general and permanent laws of the United States, including statutes and regulations. It is published every six years and cumulative supplements are issued annually.

Other countries have different systems of law. The common law is based on judicial decisions, while the civil law is derived from codes that explicitly specify the rules that judges must follow in order to arrive at a decision. The United Kingdom is a common law country, while Japan has a civil law tradition.

Private industry creates laws, too. Banking law and financial regulation set minimum standards on the amount of capital that banks must hold, and rules about best practices in investment. Labor law covers collective bargaining and the right to strike. Evidence law concerns which materials are admissible in a trial or hearing, and criminal and civil procedure sets the rules about how a trial is conducted. Finally, utility law covers public services like electricity, water and gas that private companies manage for the benefit of the public. These private companies are bound by varying degrees of social responsibility, as well as the laws of the land.