What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules created by a state or society that governs human behavior and provides a framework for civil society. It defines a person’s rights and duties and can impose sanctions (fines or imprisonment) on people who break these rules. Law shapes politics, economics, history and social relations in various ways and serves as a mediator between people.

Legal scholars have disagreed about the nature of law, with some arguing that it is a social construct and others asserting that it represents a set of natural principles. Some people, like the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, believe that law is “commands, backed by threat of sanction, from a sovereign to whom men have a habit of obedience.” Other theorists, such as John Austin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that there are natural laws that are unchanging, even though they have no explicit or formal definition.

In modern societies, most nations have a constitutional document that establishes the overall legal framework and additional laws for specific matters. Whether they are called statutes, acts, codes or regulations, these laws are enforceable by a state’s government institutions, such as the police and courts, to regulate and control human activity. In some countries, the legal system may also be influenced by international treaties and agreements.

There are many different types of laws, ranging from criminal law to property law and family law. Other laws, such as immigration and asylum law, are concerned with the rights of foreign citizens and the problem of stateless persons. Environmental and occupational safety laws are designed to prevent dangerous conditions from occurring in the workplace or in the natural environment, and health and medical law deal with the responsibilities of healthcare professionals and patients.

A judge is a person who decides lawsuits brought before the court, while an attorney is someone who defends or prosecutes a client’s case. A jury is a group of people who hears evidence in a trial and decides whether or not a defendant is guilty of a crime and, if so, how much punishment should be awarded.

Some laws are written by groups of politicians in a legislature, such as a parliament or congress, elected by a country’s governed population. Other laws are enacted by individuals, such as presidents and governors, through executive orders or decrees. Often, new laws are based on old precedents or on recommendations made by expert groups, such as scientific panels or professional associations.

The term law is used in a variety of other fields, such as biology and business. It is also a part of the name of several professional disciplines, including jurisprudence, political science and public administration. The law is a subject of study in colleges and universities, and some people choose to pursue careers in the law. Other people, however, do not find the field to be intellectually stimulating and opt for a more practical or creative career. See legal profession and legal education for more information on the different careers in the field of law.