What Is Law?


Law is the rules and regulations enforced by governments and other authorities that govern people’s behaviour. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways and serves as a mediator of relationships between individuals. It can be written by a group legislature in the form of statutes; made by an executive, such as by decrees and regulations; or established through precedent, such as in common law jurisdictions. Law can also be created by private individuals through contracts or arbitration agreements. It can also be shaped by cultural norms and family and social habits. Religious laws may be based on the Bible or Koran, for example.

There are many kinds of laws – criminal, constitutional, employment, tax and family law, for example. Criminal law aims to prevent crimes and punish those who break them, while constitutional law concerns the rights and liberties of people and how these are protected by the constitution. Employment law concerns the tripartite relationship between employer, worker and trade union; it includes issues like pay, health and safety, and a right to strike. Tax law covers the taxes that an individual must pay; and water law, energy and telecommunications are all examples of regulated industries. Banking and financial regulation sets minimum standards on the amount of capital banks must hold or rules about best practice for investing, so that there are safeguards against crises such as the 1929 Wall Street Crash.

Companies also make their own laws by setting rules and codes of conduct for their employees – this is called corporate law. There are other types of law that apply to organisations, such as intellectual property law (which deals with things like patents and copyrights) and environmental and health and safety laws.

The purpose of law is to protect us all from harmful activities, to help keep society stable and working well, and to ensure that we are treated fairly. Some nations use their legal system to promote freedoms and democracy, while others, particularly those with authoritarian governments, use it to control people’s lives and oppress minorities or political opponents.

The most important parts of a country’s legal system are its constitution, the courts and a police force. It is these that are most visible to the public; the constitution provides a framework of principles that judges must follow when considering whether a law is right or wrong, and the courts decide what punishments, if any, should be imposed on those who break the rules. The police force can enforce the law, by catching and charging people with offences, and removing them from the country if they are found guilty. Judges are the highest authority in the courts; they interpret a legal code and determine whether someone is guilty or not of breaking the law. They are also responsible for deciding how serious the offence is and how much punishment someone will receive. They can also set other laws, such as the amount of fines for traffic offences or whether a corporation has broken environmental or health and safety laws.