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What is Law?


The law is the set of rules that a society or government develops to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. These laws are enforced by a controlling authority through punishments such as fines and imprisonment. The term may also refer to the legal field, especially as a career.

The precise definition of the word “law” is an area of intense debate, with various theories put forward. However, all systems of law have four common functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. A legal system can be made up of a combination of written and unwritten rules, with laws typically written down in documents such as statutes or court decisions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements.

Some people describe all strong rules as laws, such as parental house rules or the natural instinct to survive in danger. Others, however, reserve the term to mean state-enforced laws, which are enacted by a government and must be obeyed by citizens, or face punishment. These laws might be set down by legislative bodies, resulting in statutes; by executive decrees and regulations, as in the case of the United States; or by judges through precedent (stare decisis) in common law countries.

Different legal systems have developed around the world, with some of them being more complex than others. For example, the United States employs a civil law system, in which court decisions are explicitly acknowledged as law on equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. In contrast, the majority of European countries use a common law system, in which judicial decisions are binding on lower courts and tend to be more detailed.

In some cases, the law reflects religious precepts or is based on a country’s culture or history. For example, Jewish and Islamic law are based on the Torah and Quran, respectively. Likewise, Christian canon law has survived in some churches. The majority of legal systems, however, are based on further human elaboration and interpretation, such as Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and jurisprudence.

The law is a wide and complex subject, with many specialties within the field. Criminal law, for instance, focuses on the protection of individual rights and freedoms by the use of a just penalty when a person commits a wrongdoing. Competition law, an evolving field that dates back to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade doctrine, deals with businesses who try to control markets by artificially distorting prices or limiting consumer choice. Other areas of the law include family and property laws. The latter encompasses both real property, such as land, and personal property, which can be either movable or intangible. Other types of law include intellectual property and commercial law.