What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and protect rights. Its precise definition is a topic of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as an art, science and a social phenomenon. Law is an important subject of study in fields such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology, and it raises important questions about equality, fairness and justice.

Ultimately, the meaning of law depends on how it is understood and applied. In the simplest sense, law is a set of rules that can be enforced by a sovereign authority, such as a judge or magistrate. Laws may be written, but they can also be verbal or unwritten. A legal system may be defined by its institutions, customs and traditions, as well as the procedures that govern its implementation.

The definition of law can vary considerably between countries. Some nations have a “common law” system, in which decisions of judges are recognized as law on equal footing with statutes passed by legislatures and regulations issued by the executive branch. This system is based on the principle of stare decisis, whereby previous court decisions that have similar facts and issues serve to guide subsequent decisions.

Other nations have a “civil law” system, in which statutes and other regulations provide a framework for judges’ decisions. Civil law is largely based on the principles of contract and property. It relates to disputes between individuals, including issues such as divorce, the custody of children and property division following separation. Civil law also includes torts, which compensate people when their private or business property is damaged, for example in automobile accidents or through defamation of character.

Law also covers topics such as international and nationality law, which cover the rights of foreigners to work or live in a nation-state other than their own and to gain or lose citizenship. Other areas of law include family, immigration and labor laws. Law on terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering are important subjects in their own right.

Some scholars have argued that law is a product of human social evolution and a reflection of the nature of humans as social beings. Others, however, have disputed this point, noting that while it is true that laws are derived from social interactions, they are also based on the shape of the physical world and human limitations.

In practice, the purpose of law is to keep peace and maintain the status quo, ensure the safety and security of its citizens, promote social justice and encourage orderly, democratically supervised political change. Some legal systems, such as those of authoritarian countries, are effective at doing these things, but others have serious problems with these goals (e.g., oppression of minorities by the state in Burma or Zimbabwe). The laws of a society are not objectively determined; they are largely the product of human interpretation and application.