What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules that a society or nation establishes, to be interpreted and applied by its judiciary. It covers a wide variety of subjects and is a major source of scholarly inquiry, including in fields such as history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. It is also an important source of social order and a mediator of relations between individuals and amongst people groups.

In general, laws are the product of human action and reflect man’s attempt to organize society in a way that provides security, opportunity and freedom. They are often the result of disagreements over competing values, priorities and interests. Laws are designed to solve problems, not to create them, and their effect is limited by their ability to change in the face of new information and changing circumstances.

A fundamental issue in law is the question of who has power to make and enforce the laws. The answer varies from country to country. In the majority of nation-states today, it is governments that create and enforce laws. But there is a growing movement toward decentralization of political and legal authority, as well as a desire for greater “rights” for citizens.

Law consists of many different disciplines, which are grouped into three categories for convenience (though these subjects intertwine and overlap). Civil law, found on all continents, is based on ideas and concepts developed by Roman law and influenced by canon law, with codifications dating back millennia. It is a largely legislative system, but it allows the judiciary to adapt rules to new circumstances and changes in society by way of creative interpretation and jurisprudence.

Criminal law focuses on the rights and duties of individuals as members of society and deals with conduct viewed as harmful to society. It is a highly adversarial process in which the parties to a lawsuit are represented by attorneys who act as advocates on behalf of their clients. It is a discipline that is constantly evolving and changing in response to the development of new knowledge, advances in science, technology, and society’s changing expectations about the treatment of crime.

Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on the derivatives market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible assets, such as houses and cars, as well as intangible assets, such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Family law encompasses divorce proceedings and custody of children, while administrative law involves the laws governing government agencies, such as the federal courts and Congress.

Law also includes the law of war, which defines when it is permissible to use force against another country or people. It is a broad area that has been subject to debate and controversy throughout history.