What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that a society creates and enforces to regulate behavior. It has also been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. Law can be created through political means, such as a constitution or other legislative instrument, or through the courts, such as a court order or judgment. It can also be created by private organizations or individuals, such as an employer imposing an employment contract. Law governs the conduct of government, business and personal affairs. It is the subject of study in fields such as jurisprudence, legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

The precise definition of law is a matter of longstanding debate. A basic principle is that there are no laws that are not enforced, but that the precise nature of these laws is a matter of choice for societies and governments. Generally, it is considered that law should be fair, publicized, stable and applied evenly. Law should be based on knowledge and reason, rather than arbitrary authority.

There are a variety of fields within law, including criminal and civil law. The field of criminal law deals with actions that threaten social order, while the field of civil law resolves disputes between individuals or entities. Law may address rights relating to contracts, property and torts.

The law may be influenced by cultural and social traditions, such as the Law Merchant, which provided a set of standards for trade throughout Europe, or it may be guided by the principles and categories established in a legal system. Examples include the Roman law and canon law.

In a nation, the law can be used to (1) keep the peace and maintain social stability, (2) protect minorities against majorities, (3) promote social justice, (4) guide change in a social environment, or (5) all of the above. In contrast, an authoritarian regime that imposes its will through force may use the law to oppress the majority or minorities.

The legal profession includes lawyers and judges, as well as other professional staff such as paralegals and administrative assistants. There are also a number of support services for the courts, such as probation officers (or pretrial services officers) who screen applicants for pretrial release and monitor convicted defendants released under supervision, and public defenders who represent people who can’t afford their own attorneys in criminal matters. The law also covers the legal procedures for bringing and trying cases, such as jury selection and evidence rules. The law is a rich source of study, and it is the subject of scholarly inquiry in fields such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis, sociology and the history of ideas. It is also a popular topic for fiction, such as the legal thrillers of Michael Crichton and John Grisham. A large number of law school and university programs exist worldwide. There is an active international exchange of lawyers and jurists. There are international treaties regulating space commerce, taxation, banking and financial regulations, and other aspects of the world’s law.

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