What is Law?

Law is a set of rules, or a system of rules, that governs people and their actions. These laws are usually created by a government and enforced by that same government through punishments if they are broken. These laws are used to help keep a society safe by stopping crime and preventing war.

The precise definition of law is a matter of longstanding debate. One of the earliest uses of the word in English was to refer to the rules of law, which are the standards by which judges interpret and apply the legal system. Law can also be used to refer to a specific branch of law, for example criminal or civil law. In some contexts, such as describing the field of study for lawyers, the term is more broadly applied to the entire body of knowledge about how laws are made and enforced.

Legal systems vary greatly among countries, with some countries using a common law or civil law model and others using an Islamic or Shari’ah legal framework. Regardless of the specifics, all legal systems share some features.

Generally speaking, the primary function of law is to provide a frame of reference for social stability and order. In addition to regulating behavior, it provides a mechanism for resolving disputes and for ordering society’s development over time. In a constitutional democracy, the law serves to define basic rights and responsibilities of citizens and to limit the power of the government.

Most governments have laws that regulate the activities of businesses and other organisations, to ensure fairness and to provide transparency in their decisions and actions. For example, banking law sets minimum capital requirements and rules about best practice for investment; health and safety law ensures that businesses take necessary precautions to protect employees and customers from harm; and energy and water law relates to the supply of these essential services. These laws may be framed by the government through legislation, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by courts through precedent, known as the rule of law or stare decisis.

The legal system also deals with a variety of other social issues, including family, immigration and asylum law; business and financial laws; and biolaw, which relates to the intersection between the law and the life sciences. See the articles on these topics for more information. Law is a broad and complex topic. Articles that delineate its relationship to political structures are constitution; ideology; and political party. Those that examine the law in relation to social justice and other social issues are human rights; land reform; and social service. Articles that explore the history of law are historical perspective; and Max Weber, law and society. See jurisprudence for more on the philosophy of law. Legal training and legal ethics are described in the articles on the legal profession and the legal education.