What is Law?

What is Law?


Law is a body of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is often characterized as both an art and a science, though its precise definition remains the subject of longstanding debate. It influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways, and is a mediator of relations between people.

Law encompasses a wide range of topics, from the very general to the extremely specific. As a result, it has numerous sub-disciplines. For example, labour law studies the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, and may include issues like the right to strike; family law is the discipline that governs marriage and parenthood; intellectual property law covers things such as copyright and patents; administrative law deals with the way governments are run; criminal law and civil procedure concern court procedures and a citizen’s rights to a fair trial.

The purpose of law is to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights. The extent to which a government serves these purposes is a primary determinant of its legitimacy and the level of democracy it has. The fact that some legal systems do not serve these goals is often the basis for revolts against their authorities (e.g. the revolutions in Burma and Zimbabwe).

Some laws are created by statute, others by judge-made precedent, and yet others by a combination of both methods. In “civil law” systems, decisions made by a legislative authority have the force of law, while in “common law” jurisdictions, judicial decisions are binding on lower courts (under the doctrine of stare decisis).

As laws are usually devised by men, they vary from one nation to another. Some have religious roots, and are thus termed divine or natural law; others have political roots, and so are called constitutional or positive law. These are based on a nation’s constitution or other governing documents, and are intended to guide the government in its operation.

The nature of a law may also vary from scientific to non-scientific, depending on its context and the underlying assumptions. For instance, a scientific law (such as the law of gravity) is based on the principles of empirical and physical sciences. Its validity can be tested using experiment and observation. By contrast, a law based on human judgment or ethical principles is not as well-established as the principles of science and can be overturned by new evidence.

The scope of law is vast, and its relationship to the politics of a state or nation can be examined in articles such as constitution; democracy; political system; and military, war. Other related articles include censorship; crime and punishment; law and society; and international law. The concept of law can be studied in the context of other disciplines, as well, through articles such as ethics; jurisprudence; legal profession; and legal philosophy. See also the articles on a country’s governmental structure, and law and religion. Also, see law and society; and law and anthropology.