What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules a community or country recognizes as regulating the behavior of its members. It encompasses everything from contracts to property to human rights, and consists of both written and unwritten codes, conventions, and principles. The precise nature of law is a matter of ongoing debate.

The laws of a nation can serve many purposes, including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, and protecting minorities from majorities (e.g., in a colonial state such as Burma). Some nations use law to promote social justice and provide for orderly social change, while others use law to control their citizens (e.g., authoritarian states such as Iran and North Korea).

Some systems of law are more formal than others. For example, in common law countries, court decisions are acknowledged as “law” on an equal footing with statutes adopted through the legislative process and regulations issued by the executive branch. The “doctrine of precedent” (Latin for “to stand by decisions”) means that previous cases are binding on future judges unless overturned. This differs from civil law, in which legislative statutes are more detailed and judicial decisions are less influential.

There are also differences in how law is developed. In the United States, legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. In the English legal system, legislation is often drafted by parliamentary committees, which are composed of lawyers and other experts. The process can take time and is subject to scrutiny by the courts. In other countries, the development of law is more informal. For instance, the German legal system has been heavily influenced by Roman law and Swiss case law.

Despite these differences, there are several common elements in laws across the world. For example, in all systems of law, there is a requirement for impartiality in the decision-making process and in the application of the law. There are also generally recognized principles that a law must be clear, publicized, and stable; it should respect people’s privacy, property, and procedural rights; and it should be applied evenly.

Other areas of law include:

Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, ranging from purchasing a bus ticket to trading shares in a corporation. Criminal law deals with crimes against persons, such as murder and robbery. Evidence law covers which materials can be presented in court to support a case, such as witness testimony and photographs. Family law deals with the relationships among parents, children, and spouses. Labour law includes regulations concerning the tripartite relationship between worker, employer, and trade unions. There is even a law of art, governing which materials are permissible in creating a work of literature or painting.

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