What is Law?

Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is a complex concept whose precise definition has been a subject of longstanding debate, and it is often viewed as an art or science, a means of preserving order, resolving disputes, and protecting rights and liberties.

The most basic function of laws is to define the permissible and prohibited actions in a given community. For example, in many countries it is illegal to steal, and if caught doing so one can be fined or even put in prison. Laws are also used to establish a common language and culture, to protect the environment, and to provide justice for citizens.

Laws are the source of a vast amount of scholarly work in areas such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology, and they raise questions about the principles of equality, fairness and justice. In addition, they inform all areas of daily life. Laws may be categorised into three broad areas:

Private law deals with the way people act within a household or family, for instance deciding who has custody of children or who owns property and assets. Employment law covers the tripartite relationship between employer, worker and trade union in relation to jobs and industrial action such as strikes. Criminal law encompasses the behaviour that threatens social order, such as murder or theft, and the punishments that are imposed. Civil law deals with the resolution of lawsuits between individuals, for instance who should get a divorce or how much compensation someone should receive for damage to their property.

Governmental laws — the way in which a country or state is run — are an important area of scholarly study, with debates about the nature of power, democracy and the role of the state. The question of whether a country has a ‘rule of law’ is fundamental and the heritage of arguments goes back to ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, through medieval theorists such as William of Ockham, and into the Enlightenment with thinkers like Montesquieu and James Harrington.

There are many specialised fields of law, for example, space law addresses human activities in Earth orbit and outer space, tax law covers how much people should pay in taxes and rules about banking and financial regulation, and evidence law dictates what materials are admissible in court for a case to be built. All of these fields have a common theme, however, as they all deal with the creation and enforcement of a set of rules that governs how things are done in a given society. The rules that make up a law are determined by its political context, which is different from place to place and can vary even between the same type of society, for instance between rich and poor countries. In this sense, a law is only as effective as the government that makes and enforces it. This is why the ‘rule of law’ requires that governments should be transparent and publicly accountable, with people able to know who makes and enforces the laws they must obey.