What Is Law?

The law is a set of rules created by the state which form a framework to ensure a peaceful society. This framework is enforced by a controlling authority and if the laws are broken sanctions can be imposed. Depending on how these laws are applied they can govern everything from the conduct of war to the rights of married couples. Laws can be made by a group legislature resulting in statutes; by executive decree or regulation, often through the cabinet; by judges who decide case by case and create law through precedent, called common law; by individuals through legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements which adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

The exact nature of law is a subject of considerable debate and many different definitions have been proposed. One of the most widely used is that it is a system of commands issued by the government to individuals and, if they are not obeyed, sanction may be imposed. This definition, which identifies the fundamental role of law in social life, has been endorsed by many legal thinkers and is a cornerstone of contemporary legal theory.

Other theories of law are more concerned with the context in which it is created and how it functions. Hans Kelsen, for example, developed a ‘pure theory of law’ in which law was seen as a ‘normative science’ and which sought to identify rules that should be followed. He also argued that laws should always conform to custom and culture, and not the other way around, a view that has been influential in the development of legal systems.

It is important to remember that the creation and enforcement of laws is a political process and, therefore, the precise definition of law will vary from country to country. In most nation-states, knowing who has the power to make and enforce the laws is a key question and each year there are revolts against existing political-legal authority; and, in some cases, the power of the state itself has been challenged.

The field of law is vast and contains many different specialisms. Banking law, for example, deals with the rules which must be complied with by financial institutions; industrial law covers such areas as energy, water and telecommunications which are generally managed by private businesses rather than public authorities; and tort law considers the compensation payable to people who have been harmed, whether in an automobile accident or defamation of character. There are also many other specific areas of law such as immigration and nationality laws, international law and family and labour laws. A further branch is biolaw, which examines the interaction between law and the life sciences.