What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that regulate behavior and are enforced by a controlling authority, typically through penalties. It may be created by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges through precedent, in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation. Laws may cover a broad range of subjects, from human rights and the environment to sports and gambling.

Law can be thought of as a social control mechanism, with the ultimate goal of promoting public well-being and preserving individual liberty. This view of law is called legal positivism. However, critics have argued that laws can sometimes reflect moral judgments as well as social concerns. For example, the prohibition on insider trading might be seen as a reflection of a moral stance against cheating and dishonesty, while the principle of due process guarantees that citizens are treated fairly when they interact with government agencies.

Moreover, not all law is created equal. Different legal systems develop differently, and a given nation’s history may have shaped its laws in particular ways. For instance, the United States and many other countries use a common law system, in which judicial decisions are considered law on an equal footing with legislative statutes; this is known as the “doctrine of stare decisis” (Latin for “to stand by decision”). In contrast, Japan uses a civil law system, in which courts base their rulings on written codes that explicitly specify what judges must consider when deciding cases.

In addition, specialized fields of law exist, such as environmental and aviation law. Environmental law focuses on the regulation of pollution, while aviation law covers everything from safety standards for airplanes to air traffic control procedures and is often aligned with international recommendations or mandatory standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Other specialised areas of law include criminal law and family law.

The practice of law is a career choice for many people, and it is studied in universities. Student-edited law journals, such as the Harvard Law Review and the Northwestern University Law Review, are prominent examples of student publications that publish peer-reviewed articles in the field of law. These journals are usually housed at universities that have schools of law, and membership on these publications is competitive and prestigious. These law journals are an important part of a law school’s curriculum. Similarly, law journals in other countries, such as the Norwegian Jussens Venner and the Dutch Veritas, are important sources of scholarship on a variety of topics relevant to legal issues. These publications are also often used as teaching tools for law students.