What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules that a society, state or nation accepts as binding and to which it must adhere. Laws can be written or unwritten, formal or informal, and are often based on a mixture of tradition and legal technique. Laws govern everything from property and marriage to the rights of convicted criminals and the safety of air travellers.

Laws can be divided into public and private laws. The former deal with issues of social control and order; the latter cover commercial, industrial and financial activity. Banking law, for example, sets minimum standards for the amount of capital banks must hold and rules about best practice in investment, in order to reduce the risk of economic crises like the Wall Street Crash. Consumer law covers regulations that aim to protect people from unfair or deceptive commercial practices.

Various schools of thought have offered definitions of law. The utilitarian theory of Bentham was popular in the 19th century. This defined law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to which people have a habit of obedience.” The naturalist school, represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, holds that law reflects a fundamental morality that is indestructible and unchanging.

The nature of law is complex and multifaceted, reflecting the many interests that it must balance. As a result, it is hard to define. Roscoe Pound, a leading 20th century law theorist, suggested that law is essentially a tool of social control, designed to fulfil certain social wants and needs.

A key element of this definition is that law is coercive; it punishes those who break the rules, and rewards those who obey them. This is the opposite of a liberal view of law, which sees it as a means to promote human freedom and dignity.

Other important aspects of the law include establishing standards, maintaining order and resolving disputes. For example, if two people both claim ownership of a property, the courts can decide who is the rightful owner. The law also ensures that citizens have access to justice by regulating the activities of police, government and other public bodies.

Other areas of law cover specific types of agreement or relationship. Labour law, for instance, concerns the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union, and can include employment contracts, health and safety regulations and the right to strike. Competition law is concerned with preventing businesses from using their power to distort prices or manipulate the market. Family law includes divorce proceedings, child custody and parental rights. Civil and criminal procedure laws concern the procedures that must be followed in court for trials, hearings and appeals. Biolaw focuses on the intersection of law and the life sciences. Each area of law has its own specialist terminology and techniques.