What Is Law?


Law is a body of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions. Its precise definition has been a topic of long-standing debate. Law is often divided into procedural and substantive categories, with procedures governing the rights and duties of everyday conduct, whereas substantive laws dictate moral and ethical principles and standards, such as contracts, property, torts, and criminal and civil rights.

People rely on law for many aspects of their lives, from the right to travel to the right to own property. Laws are imposed to regulate commerce, a core function of government, and to resolve disputes, through courts and tribunals. Laws also establish the boundaries between individuals, between nations and between states.

Government-enforced law can be created by a group legislature, producing statutes; by the executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or through judges’ decisions, a process known as common law. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

Many laws are based on cultural and religious practices. For example, the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia act as a basis for their respective legal systems, with further elaboration through Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus), and precedent. In the case of religions that do not have scriptures, such as Christianity, their laws are derived through judicial interpretation and a series of precedential cases.

Most countries have a constitution that codifies basic principles. Other laws are based on a particular industry or activity. Banking law, for instance, lays down minimum capital requirements and rules about best practice in financial investment. Laws regulating the transport of goods and commodities, such as maritime and air law, and law defining the rights and obligations of doctors and patients (medical law), are other examples of specific fields of law.

A person who studies and argues about law is called a lawyer, jurist, or attorney. He or she can be employed to either “transactional” law firms, which advise businesses and consumers on contracts and transactions, or to be a litigator or solicitor in a public prosecutor’s office. Some lawyers specialize in particular areas of law, such as the law of science, biolaw, or intellectual property. Law influences politics, economics, history, and society in many ways. A society without law would be chaotic and unrestrained; the existence of law provides a framework for peace, order, and social justice.

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