What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Law is a broad term encompassing a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, history, philosophy and economic analysis. It is distinct from empirical science, which makes predictions about the world and is based on observation, and from social science, which seeks to explain why people do what they do. Law is also distinctive from morality, which seeks to prescribe what people ought or ought not do.

Law can be viewed as either an instrument for promoting human freedom or as an obstacle to it. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It forms the basis of all social contracts and the foundation for democracy, free markets and justice.

It can be divided into several different areas:

Criminal law deals with the punishment of persons who commit crimes, such as murder and robbery. Civil law deals with settling lawsuits between individuals or organizations. Its roots lie in ancient legal systems, with one of the earliest being the Codex Hammurabi. The modern civil law tradition grew out of the Roman Empire, and was codified in its later days by legislative codes and a system of judge-made precedent called case law.

Company law sprang from the idea that a corporation should be treated as a separate entity with its own rights and liabilities, and that its owners should not bear personal liability for its actions. Insurance law, bills of exchange, insolvency and bankruptcy laws and the law of property all form part of the broad field of commercial law.

Labour law concerns the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union, and includes the right to strike. Family law covers marriage and divorce proceedings and child custody and maintenance. Immigration and asylum law concern the right to work in a country that is not one’s own and to acquire or lose citizenship. Evidence law refers to which materials are admissible in court to build a case.

Law is an important subject for study, as it is not only a source of societal stability and fairness, but can raise controversial issues such as how a government should treat its citizens. It is a source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy and political theory, and provides the basis for a number of fields such as anthropology, business studies and sociology.

It is important that the law is accessible to all, is understood by everyone and is transparent and accountable. This requires a stable, well-resourced judiciary with a clear separation between executive and legislative powers, and effective checks on the use of power by both the state and private entities. It is also vital that core human, procedural and property rights are protected by the law, and that a system of law is fair to all irrespective of background or social class. It is only when these principles are in place that the law can be said to be ‘the rule of law’.