What Is Law?


Law is a complex subject that shapes politics, economics, history and society in countless ways. Nevertheless, it can be reduced to a set of principles that are binding on courts and which impose responsibilities and obligations on individuals. These principles are embodied in statutes, court decisions and regulations. Law is the subject of a great deal of scholarly inquiry in many fields, including legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It also raises profound and complex issues about the nature of good and evil, morality and justice (the proper distribution of privileges and burdens in a society).

Law encompasses many different types of rules that are established and enforced by a particular nation or community to regulate its members’ actions. Its precise definition is a matter of ongoing debate. However, most scholars agree that the concept of law includes the rules that govern how a government or organization conducts its business and what rights are afforded to citizens.

The most significant areas of law are criminal and civil. Criminal law addresses conduct that is considered harmful to social order and provides a framework for determining punishment. Civil law, on the other hand, deals with the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations. The legal system is also a powerful influence in a nation’s culture and values, which are reflected in its laws and its institutions.

Other areas of law include administrative, tax and labour laws; criminal, family and property laws; and constitutional and international law. The judicial branch of the legal system is the heart of the law, and judges, barristers and other lawyers play an important role in interpreting and applying legislation and case law to individual disputes.

Judging a dispute requires not only knowledge of the facts and the law, but also skill at making reasoned decisions. This is the basis of a lawyer’s reputation. The law itself is not always clear, and the legal system has a number of special terms, rules and procedures to help clarify matters.

These include the principle of precedent, under which a decision in an earlier case with similar facts and law will govern the outcome of a current dispute unless it is overturned on appeal. This principle of “stare decisis” is one of the distinguishing characteristics of “common law” systems, in which judge-made precedent is acknowledged as equal in status to statutes adopted through legislative processes and executive regulation.

Law also includes the practices and customs of the legal profession; the procedure in a courtroom; and the way that prosecutors, judges, clerks and public defenders perform their jobs. The law can also have a wider significance, imposing limits on the activities of an entire country or region, for example through the use of censorship or military force. This aspect of the law is covered by the broad field of legal theory, which includes Max Weber’s reshaping of thinking about the extension of state power and modern military, policing and bureaucratic powers over ordinary people that are far beyond anything envisioned by Locke or Montesquieu.