What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules created by a society or a government to regulate behavior, and it is enforced by imposing penalties on people who break those laws. It is difficult to give a precise definition of law, since legal systems vary and different individuals have different ideas about what the term means. However, the main functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

Some theories of law define it as the set of rules a social group chooses to impose on its members. This definition of law emphasizes the fact that laws are a kind of control, and that they are coercive.

Others, such as Hans Kelsen, view law as a normative science that seeks to describe what should occur. Kelsen also stresses that custom is prior to and superior to law, and that a true understanding of the law requires studying custom.

Another approach to law definition views it as the collection of the various rules and policies that a society or a nation-state deems acceptable. This law definition differs from a legal system’s actual laws, which are typically enacted by a legislative body or the executive through decrees and regulations. Laws can also be established by judges through the practice of precedent, whereby previous decisions bind future courts.

Private individuals may create legally binding contracts that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation, such as arbitration agreements. The study of this kind of law is known as contract law, and it encompasses such areas as commercial transaction, privacy, insurance and property.

The law is an enormous and complicated area of human activity. Some laws govern such issues as health and safety, the environment, property ownership and banking. Other laws cover public services, such as energy, water and telecommunications, which are regulated by government. Those who work in the field of law are called lawyers, or jurists. Some of the most important and complex areas of law include criminal justice, immigration law, constitutional law, family law and biolaw.

One of the most important questions regarding the law is whether it is fair and equitable. Do people of all backgrounds and classes have equal access to the law and to the courts? Does the law provide core civil and criminal rights, such as a right to trial by an impartial judge and protection from unreasonable search and seizure?

A final question that is central to the law is who has power over the law. The framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized that power could be abused, and they put in place a structure for government to prevent that from happening. They divided power among the legislative, executive and judicial branches to ensure that no one person could exercise too much influence over the law. Nevertheless, many debates remain about how much a judge’s personal sense of fairness and morality should enter into his or her decisions.