What Is Law?

Law is a social institution that regulates human interactions and enforces the moral and ethical values of a society. It serves a variety of social purposes, including establishing a framework for peace, maintaining the status quo, and protecting individuals from oppression by majority groups. It also provides an opportunity for orderly social change through the use of legal mechanisms to sanction and punish those who do not obey the rules. Law is a complex subject that draws upon philosophy, ethics, political science and history to inform its definition.

Generally speaking, laws are made by legislators and enforceable through courts. In common law systems, court decisions are recognized as law on an equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. The “doctrine of precedent”, or stare decisis, binds lower courts to assure that similar cases reach similar conclusions. In contrast, civil law systems (which account for about 60% of the world’s population) rely more heavily on legislative statutes and less on court judgments.

John Austin’s utilitarian definition of law states that “law is the aggregate of commands, backed by threat of sanctions, issued by a sovereign to men, as political subjects, for their obedience”. Natural lawyers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believe that there are certain innate laws of nature that are unchanging and moral. Others, such as Roscoe Pound, argue that law is a tool of social control wherein conflicting pulls of economic interests and ethical values struggle for recognition.

The principal functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities and ensure that people of all social classes have access to justice. However, some legal systems fulfill these objectives more successfully than others. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo while oppressing minorities or political opponents. This is most often seen in the form of tyrannical dictatorships or in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, mass genocide and brutal repression.

There are many areas of law, such as tort, which addresses compensation for harms to property or persons. Immigration law concerns the rights of foreign citizens to live in a nation-state and the process of acquiring and losing citizenship. Labor law encompasses the tripartite relationship between workers, employers and trade unions, with regard to such issues as minimum wage and health and safety standards. Family law covers marriage, divorce and the rights of children. Commercial law involves contracts and business transactions, while biolaw focuses on the intersection between law and life sciences.