What is Law?
Law is a set of rules established by the government or other social institutions to govern people’s conduct, to protect individual rights and property, to provide justice and to resolve disputes. It is a broad term that includes civil and criminal law, as well as areas such as family, tax, space and competition.
The legal system differs between countries and sometimes within a country. Legal systems have different approaches to how laws are made, how they are enforced and what types of crimes are considered criminal. These differences reflect the many cultures and histories of the world’s diverse societies, as well as the complex factors that have shaped the development of legal systems throughout history.
A key difference between law and other sciences is that law has a normative dimension, telling people how they ought to behave or what they should or shouldn’t require from others. This gives it an ethical as well as a practical character, and means that there are different ways to interpret law.
Legal systems include both statutory or legislative laws and the judicial decisions of courts. Statutory laws are written in a way that makes them legally binding, while judicial decisions are referred to as precedent and have the same status as laws made through legislative processes. Laws are interpreted through various authorities, including the provisions of any domestic or domesticated enactment, case laws, law dictionaries, foreign laws and cases, obiter dictum and comments by legal authors.
Law shapes politics, economics and history in many ways and varies from society to society. Religion has played a role in law, and some religious communities use their own forms of law to regulate conduct and settle disputes. The Muslim Sharia law and the Jewish Halakha are examples. Religious law is typically not recognised as a source of law, but it can be used to supplement existing legal systems, for example through Islamic jurisprudence such as Qiyas and Ijma, or by Christian canon law.
The aims of law are to protect the freedom and safety of individuals, the integrity of societies and the stability of nations. Legal systems also try to prevent the concentration of wealth and power into too few hands and avoid economic, military and political crises. There are many different fields of law, but some of the most important include contract law, which sets out the terms for agreements between businesses or individuals, property law, which defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (e.g. houses, cars and jewellery), tax law and banking regulation, consumer law and competition law. The latter deals with restrictions on business practices that distort market prices at the expense of consumers. It traces back to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade doctrine. It is currently expanding to address issues such as airline baggage insurance and internet pricing. The field is reshaped constantly by new technologies, changing consumer demands and global economic developments.