What Is Law?


Law is the body of rules that a society or nation recognizes as binding on its citizens and defines the relationship between people, governments, and businesses. It includes rules created by legislatures and central bodies that codify and consolidate their laws, as well as the law based on precedent set by judges. Its influence permeates politics, economics, history, and culture in many ways.

The main areas of law are civil, criminal, administrative, tax, social security, and family. Disputes between private parties such as car accidents or defamation are fields of civil law, while offenses against the state are subjects of criminal law and may result in imprisonment. International law focuses on the relationships between different nations and their inhabitants, and includes immigration law, the right to asylum, and other aspects of political life. Tax law covers a range of topics including income tax, corporate law, and property law. Social security and family law cover issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and the rights of children and spouses. Regulation deals with the ways in which businesses must behave to protect consumers and ensure fair competition. The laws of competition are based on the law of supply and demand and are a means of controlling business prices by restricting excess capacity. Banking laws regulate the activities of financial institutions.

The underlying principle of law is that certain behaviors are instinctive or spontaneous, and therefore they should not be forced upon people against their will. A society that imposes laws against such behavior risks violating human freedom and is not a healthy society. Whether or not it is possible to empirically verify the contents of law, its existence depends on humans and their ability to reason, a task for which lawyers are trained.

There is no one definition of law, but the term encompasses a broad array of ideas and practices. It is a highly complicated subject, which has evolved over time in response to changing social situations and aspirations. In most of the world, law is a matter of politics and who commands the power to make and enforce it. Revolts against this authority are a constant feature of human history, and the nature of law changes with each new revolution. It also differs from country to country, reflecting differences in the political landscape and social structures. Articles that explore the fundamental concepts of law include constitutional law; the legal profession; legal theory; and jurisprudence. Articles that examine the relationship between law and political structures are constitution; legal system; and political party. Law is also a topic for exploration in the context of cultural studies and history, as reflected in articles on canon law; halakhah; and Shari’ah. A wide range of articles on specific types of law can be found in the collection, along with introductory material about the legal process and a bibliography. See also: legal dictionary; legislative body; and judiciary.