What is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.

The principal functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The precise nature of these functions differs from place to place and from time to time, reflecting the fact that political systems vary widely in terms of stability and the extent to which they respect human rights and the rule of law.

Generally, laws are enacted or promulgated by the state, although private individuals may also create legally binding contracts. They can be made either collectively by a legislature, producing statutes, or by an individual legislator, yielding decrees and regulations; or they may be established by judges, in common law jurisdictions, who build a body of precedent. Often, the judicial process involves appeals and reviews. The law can be applied in a number of ways, ranging from criminal sanctions for disobeying the law (including imprisonment and fines) to the resolution of commercial disputes and the allocation of property.

In addition, laws can be used as a weapon in the struggle for power between rival political groups, and to protect economic interests. For example, governments often use their power to monopolize certain industries, such as telecommunications or utilities; or to restrict trade in some sectors of the economy, such as pharmaceuticals or cotton, which can be controlled by foreign interests. The legal system provides a venue for the contestation of these power relations, and law and justice have been important themes in modern philosophy, political theory and history.

For example, the rule of law, which requires that a government respect international human rights norms and standards, is often interpreted as requiring that laws be publicly promulgated, equally enforced, independent of military influence and not arbitrarily made or adjudicated; and that all people, including citizens, are able to participate in decision-making and access to the courts. This is a working political idea that is as much the property of ordinary citizens, lawyers and activists as it is of legal philosophers.

The study of law is a multidisciplinary field, encompassing the social sciences, history and philosophy. The subject matter is rich, providing the focus of scholarly inquiry into such diverse subjects as legal history, constitutional law, economic analysis and sociology. The study of law is also a core component of a liberal arts education. Many universities offer majors and minors in law. In some countries, a degree in law is required for professional practice as a lawyer. The requirements vary, but typically include a specific academic qualification (either a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Civil Law or a Juris Doctor), completion of a professional training course and adherence to ethical codes of practice. The rules governing these practices are overseen by a professional regulating authority, such as a bar council or law society.