What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that social or governmental institutions create and enforce to regulate behavior. The precise nature of laws varies according to the context. Laws can be made by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by courts through precedent, as in common law systems. Individuals can also create legal agreements, such as contracts and arbitration agreements, which are binding on all parties and can substitute for traditional court proceedings.

Regardless of the method or sources of law, the purpose is to ensure order in society by regulating what people may or may not do. Laws are often designed to protect property and individuals from abuses by other members of a community, whether such abuse is a robbery or the false defamation of a person’s character. Laws may also restrict activities on a broader scale, such as prohibitions on smoking or a ban on carrying firearms.

The emergence of law as an institution depends on the degree to which a particular society values order and protection from harm. The most stable societies are those with a strong tradition of law and respect for the dignity of individuals. Law is also a tool to preserve social cohesion, even in the face of cultural and religious differences. For this reason, it is important that countries adopt a constitution for the overall framework of their law and make further laws for the details of day-to-day life.

Different countries have developed their own systems of law, which are influenced by their cultures and traditions as well as their histories as colonial powers. For example, the Hindu and Islamic legal traditions were supplanted in India by common law when the country became part of the British Empire. In eastern Asia, the legal traditions are more of a mix of secular and religious influences.

Some philosophers have tried to find a definition of law that encompasses both the practical and the ethical. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote that law is “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to men as his political subjects,” while natural lawyers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argue that laws are based on innate moral and unchanging principles.

Other definitions include the idea that law is a system of rules created by people and applied to a community or society for its benefit, and the idea that law is a set of guidelines that a government creates and enforces for the safety and well-being of its citizens. The field of law includes many specialties, such as intellectual property law, which protects people’s rights to their own creations, like art, music and writing, through copyright law; patent law, which protects inventions; trademark law, which protects the names of products or companies; labour law, which focuses on the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade union, and civil and criminal procedure, which concerns the rules that apply during a trial or appeal.