What is Law?


A set of rules that regulates conduct by imposing duties and punishments on individuals and groups for moral or social reasons. Laws may be imposed by an individual, group or institution or they may be part of a system of laws in a country. A lawyer is a person trained in the study and application of law.

The precise nature of law is subject to ongoing debate. It may be considered as a social science or as an art. Law is also a set of principles and conventions that govern a particular area, such as contracts, property or crime. In the latter sense it is also referred to as jurisprudence.

Different countries have various legal systems, including common law, civil law and religious law. There are many branches of law, such as contract, criminal and family law. Some laws are based on natural or human rights, such as those related to freedom of expression, privacy and equality.

Laws are developed by the judicial and legislative branches of government, although they may be influenced by other sources such as public opinion. The development of law depends on the availability of evidence, resources and political will. In modern societies laws are increasingly complex, reflecting the specialised knowledge needed to create and enforce them.

Legal philosophy, for example that of Max Weber, has reshaped thinking on the extension of state power. Modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over people’s daily lives poses special challenges for accountability that earlier writers such as John Locke or Montesquieu could not have imagined.

The term ‘law’ is also used in the title of a book or article, such as Law: A Brief History, by Professor Robert W. Coots, or The Laws of War, by General Sir John French, KCMG, GCVO, MC, DL, and the phrase ‘law and order’ to describe a system of law enforcement that includes a police service.

A law can be a commandment or a standard of behaviour that imposes duties and prohibitions on individuals and groups: for instance, the duty to protect oneself from fire. It can also be a principle of rationality or natural justice: the law of gravity, for example, is an instinctive law of nature that everyone must obey.

The term law is also used to refer to a system of rules and regulations that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated and which are consistent with international human rights standards. It requires measures to ensure supremacy of the law, equality before the law, participation in decision-making and legal transparency. It can be contrasted with a regime of rule by might or force, whose adherence is sometimes called tyranny. The United States Code is a compilation of the majority of public laws, organized by subject matter and 50 titles. Other compilations of laws include the Australian Commonwealth Acts, New South Wales Statutes and the Hong Kong Code. An appeal is a request to have a case decided by a higher court, for example the Supreme Court.