What is Law?

Law is the system of rules enforced by social or governmental institutions to ensure that individuals or communities adhere to the will of the state. It may be made by a legislative body resulting in statutes, decrees and regulations or created by judges through precedent in common law jurisdictions. It may also be based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law.

The legal system is a major factor in the organisation and governance of most nation-states (as they are known internationally) but differs significantly from one state to another. While laws shape politics, economics and history in various ways, they are also the focus of a wide range of scholarly enquiry and serve as a framework for debate on issues of equality, fairness and justice.

While some scholars have developed a complex and sophisticated philosophy of law, many others view the subject as essentially a set of procedures for the resolution of disputes and for the enforcing of rights. The principal functions of law are to define the limits of a person’s rights and to determine what actions are punishable, whether criminal or civil.

The discipline of law consists of a wide variety of subjects which are classified into three broad categories for convenience, though the subjects frequently intertwine and overlap. Labour law, for example, encompasses the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union as well as workplace rights such as a minimum wage or health and safety laws. Criminal law is concerned with the conduct of people who breach public order and the punishment of offences. Civil law covers the resolution of disputes between private parties and includes such matters as property ownership, divorce proceedings and contract law.

Throughout the world, there are two main systems of law. The civil law tradition, found on most continents, traces its roots back to the Roman legal system with influences of canon law. This has been secularized over time and now places greater emphasis on individual freedoms. It is now used in about 60% of the world’s nations.

In contrast, the other main system of law is based on religion. It reflects the philosophies of Judaism and Islam which place a greater emphasis on God’s word. Religious law is used in about a third of the world’s nations and is still practiced by some churches. In some instances, religious law extends to secular areas such as property laws and the rights of women. In other cases, religious law is explicitly aimed at settling disputes between individuals. The most widely used religious law is the Islamic Sharia.