What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules enforceable through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and ensure that individuals or communities adhere to a particular set of standards. Its precise definition is a matter of debate, and it has been variously described as a science or an art. The study of law encompasses a wide range of fields, including the history of legal systems and doctrine, the philosophy of law, legal theory, and the application of law to real-world problems.

Law can be a formal, written document or a set of customs and practices. It can be imposed by an authority, such as the state or church, or be created and enforced through the voluntary agreement of community members. Law may regulate a wide range of activities, from marriage and child custody to business transactions and property ownership. It may also govern the use of force by a government, whether in war or peace.

In a modern context, laws are most often enacted through legislatures or executive decrees and are interpreted by courts using precedent. However, other sources of law exist, such as foreign judgements or general principles of morality, equity, and justice. These are considered persuasive sources of law but are not binding on judges in cases.

A common function of law is to punish criminals and rehabilitate citizens. But it can also be used to promote civil rights, protect private property, maintain economic stability, and facilitate social change. Some legal systems are more effective at fulfilling these purposes than others. For example, an authoritarian regime can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may oppress minorities or restrict political opponents.

Legal systems are also influenced by the constitution, which may limit their power or set basic governing principles. They can also be based on religious or philosophical beliefs, such as the Ten Commandments or natural law, or be derived from a specific political ideology, such as liberalism or fascism.

The discipline of law also includes the training and practice of lawyers, who specialize in interpreting and applying the law. A lawyer’s legal education is usually reflected in the title of his or her degree: Esquire indicates a barrister, while Doctor of Law denotes an advanced degree in the subject.

Other topics within law include legal ethics, the role of the media in promoting or limiting freedom of speech, and the relationship between law and religion. Legal historians study legal systems in other cultures and periods. And social scientists investigate the impact of law on society, including social justice, human rights, and international relations. For further reading, see also criminal law; legal philosophy; and law and order.