What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules and customs that a community accepts as binding on its members. The enforcement of this body of rules is done through a controlling authority, either through courts or police. Law is an important part of any society, and many areas of life are regulated by it. For example, contracts regulate agreements to exchange goods and services; property laws define people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible possessions; banking laws establish minimum capital standards for banks and rules about best practice in investing; and regulations deal with the provision of public services and utilities, such as water supply and electricity.

The precise nature of law is a matter of ongoing debate. Different philosophers and thinkers have offered a variety of views on this question. One common theme is that laws are created and enforced by governments or social groups to ensure a peaceful and just society. They also set the limits on what people can do in terms of private and societal activities, and penalize those who break these rules.

In modern times most countries have a system of laws that is based on their constitutions, and that is enforced by police, judges, and other government officials. These laws may be made by group legislatures, resulting in statutes; or by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent (called stare decisis in Latin) in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that are alternatives to standard court litigation.

Throughout history laws have been inspired by many different factors. Cultures often have a major influence on the principles that govern societies, as do family and other social habits. Religious beliefs and books such as the Bible, Koran, or Talmud have been major sources of law in some cultures.

It is also possible to see laws as a tool for power, with some arguing that the more powerful a society is, the more its laws are used to control its citizens and prevent political change. These arguments have shaped thinking on the relationship between laws and power since the time of Montesquieu, Locke, and Marx.

Trying to determine what law is in any given situation requires a process of research and analysis. In a common law jurisdiction this begins with ascertaining the facts, locating any relevant statutes and cases, extracting principles, analogies and statements by judges of what they consider important to decide how their decisions will apply to the case at hand. Decisions of higher courts have more weight than those of lower ones, and the most recent judgments carry the greatest authority. This is called “case law”. Legal systems that are based on constitutional, statutory and regulatory laws can be complicated to navigate.