What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules that a group of people creates to ensure that they all live in peace. When people break these rules, sanctions — or punishments — may be imposed by their controlling authority, such as the police or government agencies. These sanctions are meant to punish wrongdoers and prevent them from doing harm or committing crimes in the future. Law also outlines how people can go about resolving disputes and disagreements.

The laws of a society are typically divided into different branches, or areas of legal expertise. Contract law, for example, defines the rules that govern agreements to exchange goods or services — from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law explains people’s rights and duties toward tangible property, like land or buildings, as well as intangible property such as bank accounts or shares of stock. Criminal law deals with offenses against the state, ranging from murder to defamation.

In a well-ordered society, it’s not uncommon for disagreements and conflict to arise between individuals or within a community. Laws help to resolve these issues peacefully and fairly, so that all citizens can enjoy the benefits of living in a well-functioning society. For example, if two people claim the same piece of property, they can turn to the courts to decide who owns it.

Some countries use a common law system, which is based on court decisions instead of statutes passed by legislators. Other countries have civil law systems, which are codified into standardized legal statutes that judges can reference when making decisions in cases. The goal of civil law systems is to provide a consistent framework that reduces the biases in cases where laws are applied differently from case to case.

Judges are the judicial officers who decide lawsuits brought before the courts. In the United States, the highest court in each state is called a Supreme Court, and judges are called justices. A judge’s duties and responsibilities include interpreting and applying the law to individual cases, writing opinions, and managing the day-to-day operations of the court.

The lawyers in a case are the attorneys who represent the plaintiff and the defendant. During the trial, they present evidence to convince the fact finder (judge or jury) to rule for their client. The judge’s instructions to the jury concerning the law that applies to the facts of the case are known as the charge. During a trial, witnesses are called to testify about their personal knowledge and experience relating to the case’s subject matter. The lawyers then use this information to build their arguments.