What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Law can be created by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, or by the executive through decrees and regulations, or through the judgment of judges, as in common law jurisdictions. Individuals can also create legal obligations through contracts. The precise scope of law is often regulated by a constitution, written or tacit, and by rights encoded within it.

The law is divided into a number of branches, including administrative, commercial, criminal and tort law. Each branch covers a different aspect of human activity, or deals with different aspects of the same activity, for example the law of property (how people acquire and use ownership of property), the law of companies (how people can establish businesses and share ownership), maritime law (rules about shipping) and aviation law (rules concerning aircraft). The area of commercial law includes complex contract law, insurance law, bills of exchange and bankruptcy laws, and the law of sales. The legal profession is usually regulated by a government or independent body to ensure that lawyers have the appropriate qualifications.

Courts have several important functions, including interpreting the law, determining the facts of cases and making decisions about civil rights and criminal justice. A judge is a person who decides lawsuits brought before the courts. Judges are normally selected by a process of seniority and are assigned to specific areas of the law. The chief judge of a court has primary responsibility for the administration of that court and may also decide some cases.

The practice of law is regulated by the laws and policies of the country in which it is practised, as well as the codes and ethics of professional bodies. The law may also be influenced by international norms and standards, which can set minimum standards for the treatment of individuals or the conduct of business.

In some countries, particularly those with weak formal legal systems, the law is supplemented by customary law. This consists of a vast set of traditions and practices that are not formally recorded, but which can be applied through the courts. It is often derived from religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’ah, or Christian canon law. It is sometimes based on principles of natural justice, or on ideas of divine will, or on the wisdom of sages and elders. Other sources of law include anthropology, economics, sociology and psychology. All of these disciplines provide insights that help to make the law more effective and fair, and to reduce the chances of wrongful judgments and injustice. The rule of law is a guiding principle that requires measures to ensure supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, participation in the law-making process, and legal certainty. The rule of law is also complemented by a range of other societal values, such as the right to privacy and the duty of citizens to report suspicious activities.