What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that regulates behavior within a community and is enforced by penalties. In ancient societies, laws were written by leaders to set the overall framework for society and to provide for basic human needs, like ensuring people keep their promises and don’t harm others. Today, most nations have a legislature, such as a parliament or congress, that creates the laws and then courts that apply them.

There are many different fields of law, ranging from criminal law to family law. Tort law, for example, provides compensation for injury to a person or their property, while contract law covers agreements between two parties. Labour law addresses the legal rights of workers, employers and trade unions. Intellectual property law covers the right to create and use inventions. Family law concerns marriage, divorce and child custody issues. Criminal procedure law outlines the rules that must be followed as trials and appeals are conducted. And evidence law covers which materials are allowed in court to build a case.

The concept of law is highly complex. There are schools of legal thought that vary widely in how they define law and which aims it should serve. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for example, argued that laws should be based on practical, achievable goals. Other theorists, like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, believed that laws reflected natural principles of good behaviour.

Some of the most important law-related issues are related to justice and equality. For instance, do people face the same legal consequences for the same crimes? Is the judiciary independent of political influence? And do core legal principles like freedom of the press and separation of powers exist to limit the ability of individuals or groups to abuse their power over others?

The study of law involves a deep understanding of how each country’s legal system works. Some countries have a common law system, which relies on judicial decisions that are collected into holdings (or “case law”). Other countries have a civil code, which specifies the rules that judges must follow when making their decisions. Still others, like Japan, have a system that’s based on both common and civil law. International law is another major field, involving treaties and what’s known as customary international law (judicial decisions from national court systems in disputes between nations). The practice of law also includes a range of other areas, such as constitutional law, international economic law and legal ethics.