What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules that form a framework to ensure a safe and peaceful society. It defines rights and duties and regulates the exchange of goods, services and property. Law also defines how to resolve conflicts and disputes, such as when two people claim ownership of an object. Law influences politics, economics and history in many ways. Throughout history, different theories of law have been developed. This article examines some of these, including utilitarian theory, natural law and natural rights.

A number of scholars have tried to define law. One definition is that it consists of orders, backed by the threat of sanctions, issued by a sovereign. This theory has been influenced by utilitarian philosophy and the writings of Jeremy Bentham. Another view of law is that it reflects the morality of nature, as defined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas. These theories were reshaped by Max Weber and other social scientists studying the extension of state power.

Legal systems vary widely across the world. Common law systems use the English legal tradition based on legislation, court decisions and the principle of “stare decisis” (to stand by prior decisions). Civil law systems, which now cover most of the rest of the world, are based on Roman or German legal concepts, categories and rules, sometimes complemented by local custom and culture. Religious jurisdictions have laws derived from religious precepts, such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, and Christian canon law.

In addition to laws governing the interactions of individuals, some laws govern the relations between governments, companies and organizations. Banking law, for example, focuses on the obligations and responsibilities of financial institutions. It also lays down rules about what constitutes good practice for financial investment. Other areas of regulation include the telecommunications industry, energy and water utilities.

Law also lays down the structure of a society, and can be used to control such activities as immigration, marriage or gambling. It may define what is permissible within the boundaries of a community, whether it be what is considered fair or unfair in a business contract or in the treatment of animals. It can also set minimum standards for public services and utilities, such as a minimum wage. Other aspects of law are a country’s constitution, which is the basis for its political system and the way it functions; and its justice systems. In addition to the police and judiciary, these can include tribunals or arbitration panels for dispute resolution. They can also include public prosecutors and defence attorneys, who represent citizens or businesses in courts. Civil procedure laws regulate the processes of a trial and appeal, while evidence law establishes what can be introduced as proof in court. Other rules deal with public order and security, such as the right to a fair hearing or trial. They can also include the sanctity of life. In some countries, laws are also designed to protect intellectual property, such as copyright and patents.