What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that governs human relationships and activities. It is enforced by mechanisms that may include police and courts, with sanctions imposed when the rules are violated. Legal systems differ and individuals have different ideas about what the law is, but most agree that it is a set of standards for behaviour and enforceable by state institutions.

Law enables people to live together, do business and trade with each other in peace. It is a key element in the development of a society and is essential for maintaining a civilised, orderly way of life. Laws can be made by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent (called stare decisis in Latin). Private individuals can also make legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that are alternative to the courts.

Some of the main functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain social stability and the status quo, protect minorities against majorities and promote social justice. The effectiveness of a country’s laws varies greatly, depending on the kind of government that rules the nation. Authoritarian governments might, for example, do a good job of keeping the peace and protecting the status quo, but they might oppress minorities or their political opponents.

Other important areas of law include contract, property and family. Contract law deals with agreements involving money, goods or services and includes everything from purchasing a bus ticket to a complex derivatives market transaction. Property law outlines a person’s rights and duties toward tangible, fixed assets like homes and land (called real property or real estate) and objects (like cars and books), as well as intangible assets such as shares and bank accounts. Family law encompasses marriage and divorce proceedings, adoption and custody of children.

A professional who studies, writes about and argues the law is called a lawyer, jurist or attorney. Modern lawyers have a distinct professional identity, and are usually regulated by the state or an independent regulating body. They must complete specified legal procedures and have a legal qualification, often earning a Bachelor of Laws, a Master of Laws, a Bachelor of Civil Law or a Juris Doctor degree before being admitted to practice. Some lawyers specialise in specific fields, such as family or employment law. Others choose to focus on specific types of dispute resolution, such as mediation or arbitration. Some even become specialists in the law of a particular country, such as China’s ancient Confucian laws.