What Is Law?

A law is a system of rules that governs human behaviour and provides the framework for a peaceful society. It is enforced by mechanisms created by the state and sanctions imposed if the laws are broken.

There is a wide variety of definitions of law, reflecting the complexity of a discipline that has many different functions and purposes, including the establishment of standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Ultimately, however, law is all about power: the exercise of the power of the state to control the lives of its citizens.

Law can be enacted through legislative action, resulting in statutes; by executive decree or regulation, resulting in administrative law; or by judges through precedent in common law jurisdictions. It may also be written in contracts or other agreements between private parties, referred to as contract law or commercial law. There are also specific branches of the law that deal with particular areas of human activity – immigration law, for example, covers the right to live and work in a country outside one’s own; family law deals with marriage and divorce proceedings and rights to children and property in case of separation; transactional law refers to business and money; and biolaw focuses on the intersection of law and the life sciences.

The underlying principles of law are often inspired by cultural or religious traditions and practices. The Jewish Halakha and the Islamic Sharia both have a legal basis, for instance, as does the Christian canon. In addition, many countries have further elaborations of their laws by way of interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent.

In most countries, the law is interpreted by judges and juries, whose role is to resolve people’s disputes and determine whether those who are charged with crimes are guilty or not. Judges are often influenced by their own views on what is fair and just, and there is a lively debate about how far this should influence decisions.

Lawyers are professional individuals who specialise in a particular area of the law, with two main types – transactional attorneys and litigators. Litigators tend to be more interested in arguing cases in court, while transactional attorneys are concerned with the business side of the law, such as writing contracts and advising businesses on how to protect their investments. There are also legal scholars, who focus on the theory of the law and its evolution over time. This field is often referred to as legal philosophy. It is a complex and fascinating subject that has been the subject of much debate over the years.