What Is Law?

A body of rules enforced by a state, group or community that regulates conduct and provides the foundation for social order. Laws may be based on social custom and tradition, or created by a controlling authority such as a monarch or government. They may also be shaped by religious precepts, as in the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, or by further human elaboration such as Christian canon law. A legal system may have many branches, such as civil, administrative, judicial and criminal.

A country’s laws govern a broad range of issues, including property, contracts, employment, justice and family. Laws establish standards, maintain order and redress disputes. They may impose penalties on people who break the rules, whether through tort law, a compensation claim for car accidents or defamation of character. They may also provide for the governing of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government through constitutional law.

Laws may be made by legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees or regulations; or established by judges through precedent, known as common law or case law. Private individuals may create legally binding contracts, such as arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation. Some laws are international, such as the law of nations or treaties.

For example, the principle of natural law reflects an idea that there are universal ethical principles that apply to all people. This concept was developed by philosophers and lawyers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. It is a competing theory to the utilitarian theory of law, which defines laws as commandments or threats from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience and which reflect a rational analysis of society’s interests.

Most countries have a constitution that dictates the relationship between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state. It also includes a bill of rights that protects individual liberties and ensures that power cannot be abused. Other issues that are addressed by law include the environment, war and peace, drugs and crime, and immigration. There are also specialized fields of law, such as labour law, the study of the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, trade union and employee; family law and child custody; and evidence law, which concerns what information is admissible in court. A lawyer or barrister is called Esquire when he or she is a member of the Inner Temple, a legal body in London. Other forms of scholastic qualifications for lawyers are Bachelor of Laws (LLB), Master of Laws (LLM) and Doctor of Laws (JD). The last two are generally reserved for academically qualified members of the bench. See also law, philosophy of; politics; justice; and censorship.