What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Law encompasses a wide variety of subjects, including criminal and civil justice, commercial and corporate affairs, family and property law, environmental protection, labor and employment, intellectual property, policing and public administration. Law is a discipline that incorporates elements of philosophy (theoretical and empirical), sociology, anthropology and even economics. But unlike most other disciplines, law is primarily normative – it tells us how we should behave and what rights we have or should have.

The law is generally considered to be a foundation of democracy and good governance. It provides a framework for the state’s powers and ensures that both public and private actors are accountable to laws that are clear, publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. It also ensures that human rights, including property and contract, are protected. It also requires that the processes by which the law is adopted, administered, interpreted and applied are accessible, fair and transparent and that they reflect the demographics of society.

Modern law is often divided into three broad subject areas, though their boundaries are not entirely clear or rigid. The first is common law – the body of legal decisions made by judges and based on previous case law. Its most famous proponent was William Blackstone, who argued that judges were the depositories of the law and that it is their job to decide in all cases where there is any doubt. The second subject area is the legal process itself, involving statutes, regulations and executive orders issued by governments. The third is private law, which includes contracts, property and other aspects of individual liberty and security.

In the most general sense, law consists of all the rules and principles that govern the relationship between people, their actions and each other’s property. This is a massive subject, and its complexity lies in the fact that it is not just about enforceable rules, but rather a set of relationships, values and assumptions that underlie the whole social order and are the basis for determining right and wrong.

As such, it is impossible to provide a complete overview of the field in this article, but a few examples may illustrate some of the main subjects. Commercial law, for example, involves the governing of commercial transactions and partnerships. Criminal law deals with crimes against persons, whereas family law covers marriage and the protection of children. Labour law is concerned with the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade union and involves such matters as wage claims, health and safety regulation and the right to strike. In addition, property law covers all things of a tangible nature, whether real or personal – from land ownership to mortgages and leases, from rights in rem to movable assets such as vehicles or computers, to intellectual property such as patents, copyrights and trademarks.

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