What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules enforceable by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and ensure that individuals adhere to the will of a state, society, or community. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate, with law described as both a science and an art of justice. It serves four principal purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights.

Several different types of law exist, with some having an explicit basis in religion and others deriving from a combination of human elaboration and divine revelation. Religious law is generally unchangeable, but can provide a foundation for law derived through interpretation (Judaism’s Halakha and Islam’s Sharia) or consensus (Ijma and Qiyas).

A general legal system can be created through legislative action, with statutes and regulations governing the activities of a country’s people and businesses. It can also be established by judges through the principle of stare decisis, whereby decisions made in earlier cases bind future courts to reach similar conclusions, or by private citizens through contracts and agreements. In some jurisdictions, the law is codified in comprehensive, detailed codes with a logical taxonomy and an adaptable structure that allows it to adjust to changing circumstances.

In most nation-states, the political landscape is vastly different from place to place and can be influenced by ethnicity or religion as well as economic, military and cultural factors. The extent to which a government is held accountable by its people for the laws it establishes and enforces is an important question that varies from place to place, with popular revolts against existing political-legal authority a recurring feature in many countries.

Legal practice consists of the work done by professional lawyers and other legal professionals to protect and promote their clients’ interests in accordance with the law. Legal practice encompasses a broad range of activities, from civil litigation to criminal prosecution. The most common areas of law include property, torts, family, corporate and labour.

Property law covers ownership and possession of real and personal property, including mortgages, leases, covenants, licences, easements and land registration. It also includes intellectual property and other intangibles such as copyright and patents. Tort law deals with compensation for injuries to persons and their property, whether caused by a car accident or defamation of character. Labour and commercial law are other facets of civil law. Criminal law deals with the punishment for committing crimes such as murder and terrorism, and administrative law covers activities that fall under public responsibility and regulation, such as environmental, safety, energy and water management. International law addresses the relations of states via treaties and space law is a recent development dealing with the rights of humans in Earth orbit and beyond.