What Is Law?

What Is Law?

Law is a body of rules created by a society or group that are enforced through penalties. It serves many purposes, but the principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving conflicts and protecting individual rights. A law can be made by a legislative assembly, resulting in statutes; by the executive branch of government, through decrees and regulations; or by judicial decisions, resulting in case law (also called stare decisis). Private individuals also may create binding legal agreements with one another or with their companies, such as contracts.

People often disagree with each other, and laws provide a way for them to resolve these disputes peacefully rather than through force. For example, if two people claim the same piece of property, the law can decide who owns it. The law can also protect people from abuses by limiting the power of governments or corporations.

The precise definition of law is a matter of debate, with different groups proposing a wide range of theories. One theory, developed by Hans Kelsen, defines law as a ‘normative science’. This explains that law reflects the common consciousness of people and thus is superior to legislation. Another theory is utilitarianism, which asserts that the primary purpose of law is to ensure social justice.

A further goal of the law is to guarantee that people can plan their actions with reasonable confidence in advance about what kind of legal consequences they will face. This means that the rule of law requires laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, with transparency and accountability. It also requires separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty and the avoidance of official arbitrariness.

Whether a law is good or bad depends on how it serves these goals, and the extent to which it respects individual freedoms. The relative merits of law as a tool for social change can be compared by studying the history of different societies and their legal systems. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it will oppress minorities and limit the right of free speech.

The law is complex and vast, but a general understanding can be obtained by studying the fields of law that deal with specific issues or topics. For example, labour law encompasses the regulation of the tripartite relationship between employee, employer and trade union; contract law focuses on legally binding agreements; family law deals with divorce proceedings, custody of children and the rights of spouses; and evidence law addresses which materials are admissible in court. Other areas of law include international law and military law.