What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules that governs society, regulating behaviour, resolving disputes and setting limits on what people can do or not do. Law covers a diverse range of subjects and is central to many areas of study, such as legal history, philosophy and economic analysis. Law shapes politics, economy, history and culture in various ways, and raises a number of ethical issues concerning fairness and justice.

Legal definitions differ, but all include a normative element: the law dictates what should or should not happen, and when it does, it is enforced by means of sanctions. Law is thus not like an empirical science such as physics or even sociology, which describe observable events and relationships but do not prescribe how people ought to behave. Moreover, laws are inherently contingent on human beings who must decide how to interpret and implement them; thus they cannot command behaviours which are impossible to achieve or force people to do things they can’t do.

One of the main functions of law is to ensure that people’s rights are protected, which is achieved through legal systems that are accessible and enforceable. Another function is to maintain some semblance of order in a society that consists of individuals with different needs, views and values. This is achieved through criminal law, which punishes conduct that harms other people or their property, and civil law, which resolves disputes by way of the court system.

A third function of law is to provide a common basis for trade among nations. This is achieved through the Law Merchant, a legal code that was developed in the 18th century so that merchants could trade without having to deal with a patchwork of local laws across Europe. Later, the Napoleonic and German Codes further consolidated the Law Merchant into civil law.

Law also serves to protect people from the threat of violence and death, which is achieved through the criminal and civil courts. Additionally, it sets the rules for the safe operation of commercial enterprises, such as air, maritime and railway transport. It regulates labour relations, such as the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union, and it establishes standards for personal safety at work. It also governs the use of property, whether land (right in rem) or personal belongings (right in personam).

Other areas of law are space law, which addresses the activities of humans in outer space, and tax law, which includes regulations on value added tax, corporate and income tax, and capital markets. Laws can be classified as either constitutional, civil, or criminal. Constitutional law outlines the principles of a state, such as its territory and borders; civil law defines the procedures for resolving disputes, and criminal law defines offences and punishments. Each of these categories can further be subdivided into individual topics. The following is a list of some notable examples: