What Is Law?

Law is the aggregate of rules established and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, with penalties imposed for violations. Its precise definition is a matter of debate.

One common view is that law, in its broadest sense, is any set of rules regulating the actions of individuals or groups within a society. Other scholars conceive law more narrowly as the system of enforceable sanctions or penalties. Still others see law as a form of power, a tool used by governments to achieve particular goals. These purposes might include keeping the peace, maintaining stability and the status quo, preserving individual rights, enforcing social justice or encouraging social change.

Governments might use the law to achieve these objectives by creating and enforcing laws; by using the legal system to protect economic interests; or by imposing military force. Often, these laws might impose restrictions on the freedom of speech and religion, prohibit certain types of labor or property transactions, restrict travel, or regulate commerce.

The nature of a country’s laws depends on its political structure and historical background. Some nations rely on a constitutional, democratically elected government to create and enforce laws. In other cases, a single authoritarian ruler or ruling group might control the government and laws. While an authoritarian regime might keep the peace and maintain the status quo, it may oppress minorities or promote injustices against political opponents.

In the United States, the legal system is based on a combination of legislative statutes and case law. Judges write decisions that establish a precedent, or the “doctrine of stare decisis”, which ensures that similar cases will reach similar results. Other countries, such as Japan, rely on civil law, in which judges follow a set of codes when deciding a case.

Modern legal systems also reflect the influence of other cultures and civilizations, notably Roman, Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, and Indian laws. In addition, Western societies influenced the development of laws in eastern Asia and Latin America.

The practice of law is regulated by a specific profession, and the career of a lawyer requires a degree in legal studies or a similar field. The study of law is a multidisciplinary discipline, and the legal sciences are interconnected with other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, sociology, and economics.

Individuals, businesses, and other organizations can also make their own laws that are binding on them. For example, private citizens can agree to arbitration as a way of resolving disputes instead of litigation. Some of these agreements are enforceable under contract law, which governs the exchange of goods or services. Other examples are consumer protection regulations or competition laws that prohibit businesses from unfairly distorting prices.