What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that governs human interactions in a society. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Laws may identify crimes and prohibit civil (non-criminal) behavior or set standards for a country’s environment or culture. A country’s laws are usually based on its constitution, a written document that enshrines the rights of its citizens. A constitution is a foundation upon which laws can be framed and it helps to ensure that government is not run by “men above men,” as James Madison wrote in one of the Federalist Papers.

Most countries have a system of courts that solve conflicts and determine guilt or innocence in criminal cases. In some places, judges tell a jury how to interpret facts from a legal perspective and then the jury decides whether someone is guilty or not. In other places, a judge decides guilt or innocence without involving a jury. The court system often has multiple levels of appeals, up to a supreme authority like the Supreme Court.

A country’s laws may be influenced by its culture, social habits, religion and family traditions. The principles behind laws may also be based on ideas formulated in books, including philosophical works and scientific theories. For example, a country’s laws may be influenced by the natural law theory formulated by philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his followers, which states that there are certain unchanging laws of nature, such as the law of gravity, that guide human conduct.

The primary function of a law is to keep the peace, maintain the status quo and preserve individual rights. The degree to which a nation’s laws serve those purposes varies greatly from nation to nation. Some nations impose the law by force and oppress minorities or their political opponents, while others aspire to democratic rule, greater “rights” for their citizens and a peaceful and orderly process for social change.

In some places, the law is made by a democratically elected government; in other places, it is dictated by an authoritarian regime. Even in democracies, there are periodic revolts against the political-legal authority that is established, either by demanding a stronger democratic structure or simply by arguing for greater individual rights.

Laws are typically categorized into a number of different areas, such as contract law, property law, family law and commercial law. Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services and includes such things as rental contracts, sales contracts, insurance policies, promissory notes, guaranties, leases and mortgages. Property law identifies people’s rights and duties toward tangible property, such as land or buildings, as well as movable property, such as clothing, cars or stocks of shares. A company or other business entity must adhere to commercial laws, which include such regulations as corporate law, banking law and intellectual property. Aviation laws are governed by national civil aviation acts, which are aligned with the recommendations or mandatory standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Each of these fields of law has numerous sub-fields.

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