What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules enforceable by social or governmental institutions that are used to regulate behavior and protect the interests of citizens. It has been variously viewed as an art, science and an instrument of peace. Its precise definition has been a subject of long-standing debate.

There are four principal functions of law: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and ensuring liberties and rights are protected. Laws can be enacted by the executive branch of a government through decrees and regulations, or by a legislative branch of a country through statutes, or created by judges through judicial decisions that are binding on other adjudicators under the doctrine of stare decisis in common law systems. The law can also be derived from religious precepts, as in Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia laws, or it may be based on a country’s inherited legal traditions.

The most important function of a legal system is that it maintains societal order by sanctioning or punishing actions that violate established moral, ethical and/or logical principles. For example, murder and theft are against the law, as are libel, bribery and defamation. In countries that have a constitutional democracy, the governing body establishes the law and enforces it through a judiciary branch, which is composed of magistrates (judges) and prosecutors. The legal profession is often a career path for many young people, and has various specialized fields, including civil and criminal litigation, corporate law, labor law, family law and tort law.

Different societies have developed different legal traditions based on their historical and cultural experiences. These include Chinese law, Indian law and Japanese law. The European law tradition, which includes Roman law and the common law of England, has had a significant impact on other Western nations and on eastern Asia.

For example, the contract law of most of Europe and the United States regulates agreements between private individuals, while labour law addresses the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, with specific regulation such as the right to strike. Other legal fields deal with specific types of property, such as real estate and personal possessions. The law of torts provides compensation for damages to persons and their property, such as in car accidents and cases involving defamation.

Whether or not one agrees with the philosophy of law as articulated by Jeremy Bentham and John Locke, there is no doubt that the law does have its roots in experience. The felt necessities of a society, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy—avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices of judges—all play a role in shaping the laws that exist at any given time. These factors can be as influential as the logical process of syllogism in creating the legal system that exists in a particular time and place. The result is that, despite their flaws, laws are generally respected and followed because they are backed by the force of power. This is illustrated by the fact that tyrannical rulers who create arbitrary or bad laws are still followed by their subjects, as was the case when the military government in Myanmar (formerly Burma) imprisoned the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under its law.