What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules that a particular community or nation recognizes as binding on its members and that is enforced by a controlling authority. It serves a number of purposes, such as setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting individual rights and liberties. Laws differ from country to country, and the nature of a nation’s government affects the shape and substance of its laws.

A legal system may be governed by a legislative body, such as a parliament, or it may be based on the decisions of a judge or barrister in court cases. The latter is referred to as a “common law” system and it is found in countries such as Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, the United States, and Wales. In common law systems, judges’ decisions are regarded as law and are binding on future courts. This is called the doctrine of precedent or stare decisis.

Other legal systems are based on concepts and categories drawn from religion or culture. These include the Islamic Sharia, Jewish Halakha, and Christian canon law (which survives in some church communities). In these types of systems, religious precepts have a dominant influence, even on secular matters.

The legal system shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. For example, it determines how a person will be treated by a police officer or by another official. It also defines property rights and liabilities. The law also establishes a set of standards for education and imposes restrictions on media freedom. It is used to control the economy by regulating business and industry, and to manage social change.

A legal system must be flexible enough to adjust to changing conditions and meet the needs of its people. This requires a clear expression of rights and duties, with remedies easily accessible. It also requires a system that leaves room for judicial interpretation and creative jurisprudence, so that the rules can be adjusted to new circumstances. Finally, it must be rooted in the nation’s tradition and heritage but also open to global influences and ideas. This is often achieved by combining the elements of a continental civil law system with a common law system.