What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules a society or government develops to deal with matters such as crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It is a broad concept and its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, but most scholars agree that law is a set of norms created by a given authority in order to control human behavior. Law also refers to the people who work within this system. For example, a lawyer or judge is a person who practices law.

Some law is created by statute, which creates legal obligations by enshrining certain principles in an official document; other laws are established through the executive, in decrees and regulations; and still other laws are based on custom or on precedent decided by judges, particularly in common law jurisdictions. Individuals may also create legally binding contracts or arbitration agreements, which offer alternative ways to resolve disputes than standard court litigation.

Law reflects the way a society is organized, and as such, different societies have very different legal systems. The law is influenced by religion, philosophy, and culture. For instance, Jewish and Islamic law is based on religious precepts. The laws of these religions are determined through a process known as halakha and Shari’ah, respectively. The laws of Christian churches are determined by canon law.

In addition to regulating people’s behavior, laws can also govern how property and resources are disposed of. For example, contracts regulate the exchange of goods or services; tort law determines a person’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible property, such as an automobile or the reputation of a business; and criminal law defines how the state can punish those who commit crimes.

Ultimately, the development of a legal system depends on who commands the political power in a nation. Some countries have democratic governments that provide a rule of law for their citizens, while others have authoritarian governments that do not. Each year, there are revolts against existing legal-political systems. Max Weber reshaped thinking on the extension of state power through its control over civil and private life in a modern sense, with the rise of modern military, policing and bureaucratic institutions.

In general, studying the law involves examining not only how and why specific laws are made but also the social circumstances that create a need for those laws. For this reason, studying the law is often considered a social science. See the articles on legal profession, legal education, and legal philosophy for further discussion of these issues. Articles on the relationship between the law and politics delineate how the law is governed and by whom, and examine the role of laws in particular settings, such as war; crime and punishment; and civil rights.