What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules and regulations established through a governing authority to ensure that individuals or a community adhere to specific precepts and to maintain social order. It can be state-enforced, resulting in statutes, decrees or regulations, or private-initiated and binding contracts such as arbitration agreements. It may be based on religious precepts such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, or Christian canon laws that survive in some church communities.

The genesis of law can be traced back to the ancient need for order and stability in societies that were often overpopulated or conflicted. This led to the development of a body of laws governing all aspects of human interaction, ranging from the right of property and rights of inheritance to the definition of marriage and other family relations. Some legal systems are more advanced than others, but all have the same fundamental purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights.

A society’s system of law is determined by a number of factors, including its constitution; the philosophy of law; and its culture. Legal philosophies and traditions differ, but most include an emphasis on the importance of justice and equality. Some philosophies, however, reject the idea of justice or the need for equality.

During the modern era, European nationalism led to the development of civil codes, which brought together splintered facets of local law into single volumes that were easy for judges to interpret and apply. These codes also facilitated trade by providing common standards of practice that would be enforceable across nations. The Law Merchant, for example, was a precursor to modern commercial law.

While the law is a vital component of any society, there are limits to how much a governing authority should exercise power over citizens. In general, law should limit the extension of government, and prevent governments from oppressing minorities or political opponents. This is a major concern in many nations, where the military and police have been given tremendous discretion over ordinary people’s daily lives.

The underlying concepts of law can be broken down into four Hohfeldian positions: privileges, powers, claims and immunities (Kamm 2002: 476). Privileges and rights that are actively exercised determine what right-holders may do (privilege-right) or can do (power-right), while the claims and immunities that are passively enjoyed determine what right-holders ought to do (claim-right) or cannot do (immunity-right). While claims and claims are usually associated with legal jurisdiction, each position has different implications for other normative issues. For a more complete explanation of this concept, see jurisprudence. For further discussion of the societal and ethical implications of the law, see criminal law; property law; and contract law. Articles examining the relationship between the law and social structures can be found under constitution; ideology; and political system. For an examination of the relationship between law and economic issues, see business law; corporate governance; public service; and regulation. Law is a complex issue and has many different branches, such as administrative law; aviation law; constitutional law; criminal law; contract law; employment law; family law; forensic science; insurance law; maritime law; tax law; and tort law.