What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that governs human conduct and the relationships between people and communities. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways. The precise nature of law is debated and the term is often used to refer to a particular branch of law, such as criminal law or contract law.

The main purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Legal systems can be characterized by their level of formality, their degree of transparency and the way in which they respond to social change and new needs. They can also be distinguished by the extent to which they are based on religious precepts, such as the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia, or on further human elaboration such as interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent.

A wide range of laws are created by governments and enforced at the state or national level. These include statutes, regulations and executive orders, as well as judicial decisions. The decisions of higher courts bind lower ones in common law countries through the doctrine of stare decisis. Individuals can also create binding contracts and private arbitration agreements that adopt alternative forms of dispute resolution to standard court litigation.

Laws may be created by a legislative body, leading to statutes; by the executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or by judges through precedent, in common law jurisdictions. In the latter case, judges’ decisions are explicitly acknowledged as law and form the basis for a judicial system that combines legislative statutes with the rule of law.

The law can be divided into civil law and criminal law, reflecting different approaches to justice and the relationship between individuals and the state. Civil law provides the legal framework for most of everyday life, governing contracts, property, torts and consumer protection. It can also encompass criminal law, which deals with crimes such as murder, robbery and fraud.

Those who believe that law is power argue that coercion and violence are an integral part of the process of creating and enforcing laws, particularly when they are imposed by tyrants or dictators. Examples of this include the Nazi era genocide of six million Jews and Saddam Hussein’s systematic torture and execution of political opponents. Those who believe that law is morality, however, argue that laws should be based on values rather than the use of force. The law should provide a basis for fair and just treatment of all members of a community regardless of wealth or social status, and it should protect their human and procedural rights. These are the foundations of a democratic constitutional state.