What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It is also the profession of those who advise others on legal matters or represent them in court, and it is the study of systems of laws and how they work.

The precise definition of law is debated, but most agree that it encompasses the rules and regulations established by a society or government for controlling behavior and settling disputes. The rules may be created by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges through precedent, a practice known as stare decisis that is prevalent in common law jurisdictions. Individuals may also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

A nation’s laws are the product of its political and social history. They are shaped by the country’s constitution, whether written or tacit, as well as its culture and tradition. In the United States, for example, the constitution guarantees people certain rights that cannot be abridged or abolished by any legislative body. It also establishes the role of the Supreme Court as a final arbiter of constitutional questions.

Almost every aspect of modern life is regulated by some kind of law. Business, for instance, is conducted under contract law, which governs the exchange of goods and services. The banking industry is heavily regulated. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible items like their homes, cars, and clothing, and intangible items such as bank accounts and stocks. Criminal law punishes those who commit offenses against the state or against other individuals.

Law varies greatly across the world. Some countries have civil law traditions, based on concepts and categories derived from Roman law and supplemented by local custom and culture. These systems, found in about 60% of the world, emphasize cooperation between human beings.

Other countries have religious laws, based on the teachings of a given faith, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’ah, or Christian canon law. These systems, which are found in the remaining 40% of the world, tend to be more restrictive and hierarchical, with a greater emphasis on obedience to the clergy and the rule of law. Religious laws often do not have a precise logical structure and therefore require further human elaboration through interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), and Ijma (consensus). They also tend to be coercive in nature, meaning that religious leaders can impose punishments for violations of the law. The laws of a religion do not usually preempt all state law, but they often override it where necessary. They are also influenced by the political climate and economic realities in the country, which influence the types of laws created.