What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that a government or society develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements, property rights and social relationships. A legal system is defined by the governing authority that enforces these rules and ensures their consistency and fairness. A person practicing law is called a lawyer, and can hold the title esquire or doctor of law. Law can refer to a specific subject such as criminal law or corporate law, or it can refer to the profession of law itself.

A key feature of law is that it is objective, not based on personal beliefs or prejudices. This means that it is not possible to have a “law of the jungle” where one group of people is allowed to do whatever they like. Instead, a legal system must protect basic human rights and provide equal protection for all individuals. It must also be able to adapt to changes in social circumstances and remain open to innovation.

In addition, the law must be based on the principle of supremacy of the law and must be publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated. Moreover, it must be compatible with international human rights norms and standards.

Despite these challenges, the development of modern legal systems has benefited from advances in sociology, political science, economics and philosophy. These developments have changed thinking about the extent to which a state should be authorised to govern, challenging ideas that influenced classical writers such as Montesquieu and Locke. Nonetheless, the expansion of military, policing and administrative power over ordinary citizens’ daily lives poses new problems for accountability that earlier writers could not have anticipated.

There are three broad categories of law, although the subjects within each category overlap and interact:

Criminal law concerns offences such as robbery or murder. Property law covers ownership, control and transfer of property. Family law concerns marriage and divorce proceedings. Labour law includes the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union, and entails such issues as wages, health and safety regulations and the right to strike. Civil law involves the concepts, categories and rules inherited from Roman law whose codes were rediscovered in late medieval Europe, supplemented and amended by local custom or culture.

Other law subjects include immigration and nationality laws, which concern the rights of people to live and work in a nation-state outside their own, as well as the right to asylum; family and labour relations laws, which cover marriage, divorce and the rights of children; and commercial law, which concerns contracts and the ownership and transfer of property. The rules governing these areas are continually developing and changing, reflecting the increasing interdependence of nations in a global economy. This is reflected in the expanding body of treaties and conventions that are binding on countries as they move closer together. A number of other laws are voluntary codes compiled by private organisations for their members. These can vary widely from organisation to organisation.