What Is Law?

What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules that a country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It may be written or unwritten, statutory (codified) or customary. Laws control and direct society in general, establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, protecting liberties and rights, and guiding social change. Some legal systems are more successful at serving these goals than others. For example, a government ruled by an autocrat may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but might oppress minorities and prevent democratic social change.

Most countries have a judicial system with judges, who are called magistrates or jurists in some languages, who resolve people’s disputes and decide whether someone charged with a crime is guilty or not. The highest courts usually have the power to remove laws that are deemed unconstitutional, which means they go against a particular constitution or set of basic principles.

The discipline of law studies the nature, development and organisation of legal systems and their relationship to politics, economics and history. It also covers the major debates in legal philosophy, from utilitarian theories of law to ideas like natural law and jurisprudence.

Some areas of law focus on specific things, such as intellectual property law (protection for works of art like music and literature or inventions) or a person’s right to privacy or physician-patient privilege (which governs how medical professionals treat their patients). Other legal fields include labour law, which involves the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union; immigration law and nationality law, which regulate people’s ability to live in a country that is not their own and acquire or lose citizenship; trust law, which establishes the rules that govern the use of money or assets; and biolaw, which examines the intersection between laws and the life sciences.

Law also encompasses the system of responsibilities and duties that people have towards one another, especially in relationships between family members and friends, colleagues at work or neighbours in a neighbourhood. The study of law is often based on the assumption that there are some universal, unchanging moral rules that people should follow, such as the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments. These rules, if they are to be valid, must be enforceable by a governing authority, which is why the field of law includes criminal and civil procedure and evidence law (which sets out how materials can be presented in court). Alternatively, some religions rely on further human elaboration for their legal systems, such as the Jewish Halakhah or Islamic Sharia, or Christian canon law. The earliest laws were probably written down by ancient people, but most modern legal systems are developed through a process of interpreting existing laws and creating new ones. In either case, the law can be influenced by cultural traditions and values, as well as social and personal experiences. For example, parents tend to teach their children certain rules based on what they believe to be the right thing to do.