The Basics of Law


Law is the set of rules that a government or other authority uses to regulate human behavior and to protect the rights and liberties of its citizens. It is enforced by mechanisms such as courts and the military. The law can also shape the political and social environment by setting standards, keeping order, resolving disputes and promoting social justice. Different countries and societies have various laws and legal systems. These vary in their effectiveness and efficiency for achieving the above goals. The law can be created by legislatures, resulting in statutes; executive authorities, such as the presidency and the prime minister’s office, through decrees and regulations; or by judges, who create precedent through their decisions and opinions, known as case law.

The precise nature of the concept of law is the subject of much debate. It is complex from a methodological viewpoint, because unlike a natural phenomenon, such as the force of gravity between an apple and the Earth, a law has both descriptive and prescriptive dimensions. This is because it sets out how people ought to behave and what they may or must not require from other people, rather than simply explaining what happens.

A major issue in the study of law is how far it extends beyond a state’s borders. For example, international law addresses the rights and obligations of states and other entities when dealing with each other. Another topic is the extent to which the law incorporates morality. The utilitarian definition of law as commands backed by the threat of sanction imposed by a sovereign was popularized by Jeremy Bentham, but other philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas advocated that it reflects innate laws of nature, which are immutable.

Among the many fields of law, there are labour, family and property law, as well as torts and criminal laws. Tort law concerns compensation for loss or injury, such as for an automobile accident or defamation. Family law covers marriage, divorce and children’s rights. Property law encompasses both real and personal property, with the former being land or movable objects such as cars and computers, while the latter includes intellectual property and trusts.

Other legal issues include the legal profession, legal education and legal ethics. Articles that address these and other topics in more detail are available. In addition, for an examination of how the law is shaped by political structures, see constitution; ideologies; political party; and politics. Finally, the societal impacts of the law are examined in articles such as society; civil society; and power and accountability.