What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. It is also the term used for the profession of lawyers and judges who work within this system.

The law informs people’s everyday activities in a variety of ways and is reflected in numerous branches of law. For example, contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, while property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible things they own and possess (such as land or buildings) and intangible things that represent their ownership (such as bank accounts and shares of stock).

A key function of law is to ensure that all are treated fairly and that individuals’ liberty and property are protected against the tyranny of the majority. As such, the rule of law requires a just legal system that is free from corruption and oppressive practices. For this reason, many countries strive to establish strong formal justice systems and respect internationally accepted ideals of justice.

Law can serve a number of other important functions as well. These include keeping the peace, preserving the status quo, protecting minorities against majorities, promoting social justice and providing an orderly process for social change. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the political landscape differs from nation to nation. An authoritarian regime may keep the peace but oppress minorities and other groups, while democratic governments must balance a commitment to the rule of law with the need to respond to social change quickly.

Most legal systems have some form of written law, and most have a judicial branch to interpret and enforce those laws. However, some legal systems rely more on customary law or oral traditions that vary from community to community. These are often based on longstanding local customs that greatly shape ideas of justice.

While the exact definition of law is a matter of debate, most scholars agree that it encompasses a set of norms that are enforceable by a sovereign or its agents and that govern social interactions and the relationship between citizens and their state. This includes laws governing the use of force and the protection of human rights, as well as the responsibilities of states to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

There is a growing recognition that the law is an essential tool for addressing global challenges, including climate change and biodiversity loss; reducing poverty and inequality; strengthening governance and the rule of law; and tackling corruption, terrorism, conflict and instability. The international community must continue to build a common understanding of the principles that underlie a healthy law-and-order system and support countries in their efforts to implement those principles effectively and transparently. This will require sustained investment in education, training and capacity building, as well as close cooperation between the public and private sectors. This will enable countries to develop and implement their own visions of a just and equitable world, supported by strong legal institutions.