What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules a particular community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It covers a wide variety of issues, from criminal and civil law to property law. It can also refer to a particular body of knowledge, such as a specialized area of expertise or a work of art: the laws of gravity, for example, are universally recognized, while the laws of music or playwriting differ across cultures.

Law also refers to the practice of judging cases, and how those decisions are enforced. The main functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Legal philosophy focuses on the questions of how these purposes are best achieved and what the proper role of law should be in society.

The concept of law encompasses a huge range of topics and debates, from the most abstract theories to practical applications. The earliest scholarly definitions of “law” often focused on the power to enforce rules, while more recent ones have concentrated on the social and ethical values that underlie the law. For example, John Austin’s utilitarian theory of law defined it as “commandments, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to which people have a habit of obedience”; Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of natural law is the opposite of this, arguing that the laws of nature and human nature are unchanging and inviolate.

Almost every nation-state has a complex legal system that reflects its historical and cultural development. Nevertheless, there are a number of essential features. For one, knowing who has political authority to make laws is crucial. In most countries, the people or a political party exercise this power. However, there are also a variety of attempts to change the existing law, including revolutions and aspirations for greater rights for citizens.

In most common law systems, the law is a combination of legislation (legislative statutes) and court judgments. In a common law jurisdiction, judges’ decisions are binding, and the “doctrine of stare decisis” means that lower courts will follow earlier decisions. In some countries, legislative statutes are more detailed than court decisions and provide a framework for judicial decision-making.

Most universities have one or more law journals, publishing articles on a variety of topics. These include general-interest law reviews, such as the Washington Law Review, and specialized journals on subjects like environmental or international law. The library collections at most law schools contain a number of these journals, and many are available in electronic form through law library databases such as LexisNexis or HeinOnline. There are also a number of websites devoted to law and the legal profession. These are often affiliated with or sponsored by a particular law school. Some of these are free, while others require subscriptions. The most prestigious law schools have one or more flagship journals that are widely distributed. These can be found in print and online through the publisher’s website. The Washington University Law Review and Gonzaga Law Review are examples of such journals.