The Basics of Law

Law is the system of rules that a society develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. The term is also used to refer to the people who work in this system, notably lawyers and jurists. It is a complicated field that intersects with politics, economics, history and philosophy.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a legal world, and the study of law helps us to understand how this works. Laws are made by governments and their agencies, but they also arise from private institutions and private individuals. They are enforced by a variety of methods, including censorship and police, but most often by judges. The rules that judges use to decide cases depend on their personal and cultural background and may differ significantly from the rules of other courts, or even of their own country.

The word ‘law’ is derived from the Latin lege, meaning ‘to lay down’ or ‘to make’. The earliest known law dates from about 3,000 years ago, in the Sumerian city-state of Uruk. Laws were originally oral but later became written. They were based on a variety of factors, from the need to manage trade and commerce to the desire to preserve social stability. In modern societies, laws are usually written and codified, although they may also be unwritten and based on custom.

There are many different branches of law. Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible assets, such as houses or cars, and intangible ones like bank accounts or shares of stock. Tort law provides compensation for injury to a person or their property, from car accidents to defamation of character. Employment law covers issues such as workplace health and safety, unions and the right to strike. Family law includes divorce proceedings and the rights of children. Biolaw examines the intersection of law and the life sciences.

Governments make laws at the state, local and national level, as well as the European Union. They also make laws at the international level, mainly through treaties and agreements like the European Convention on Human Rights. In the United States, a large number of statutes and regulations have been enacted by Congress, and a smaller number by executive branch agencies. The Federal Code and the United States Code are official compilations of federal law. Judicial interpretations of federal statutes and regulations are enforceable under the Chevron doctrine, and are considered to be binding in lawsuits that dispute their meaning.

Philosophers have debated the nature of law for centuries, influenced by religious beliefs and political interests. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham defined law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to which all men have a natural inclination to obey.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas developed theories of natural law, arguing that the laws of the universe are immutable and morally binding.