What Is Law?


Law is a collection of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is also the source of many areas of scholarly inquiry in legal history, philosophy and economic analysis. It raises complex issues of equality, fairness and justice that have challenged philosophers such as Max Weber.

The precise definition of law is a matter of debate. Some definitions include the following:

Law is a systematic set of rules and norms that are recognized and applied by a state in the administration of justice. It is distinct from a system of rules that are simply a guidepost for behaviour, as in the case of ethical or moral principles such as “obey this command and punish anyone who disobeys it”.

Other definitions place law on a higher plane than mere guidance. For example, John Salmond defines law as a “system of principles, recognised and applied by the state in the administration of justice”. This definition puts law on an equal footing with a legislative statute, as well as judicial decisions. The former are known as case law and the latter as legal precedent, with decisions of a higher court binding lower courts to assure consistency in decision making.

A more practical definition of law includes laws that govern property, contracting, criminal and civil law. Criminal law deals with actions that are deemed harmful to social order. Civil law is concerned with the resolution of lawsuits between individuals or organizations.

Law is an important topic of study for students of jurisprudence, constitutional law and international law. It is also a major source of scholarly investigation in legal history, philosophy and sociology.

Modern law is a highly specialised discipline. Lawyers are regulated by professional bodies and must meet specific academic qualifications, including a legal education leading to a degree (e.g. a Bachelor of Laws or a Juris Doctor) and an appropriate examination.

The practice of law is usually overseen by a government or independent regulating body such as a bar association, bar council or law society. In addition, lawyers must usually meet a minimum standard of professionalism, and may be required to adhere to a code of conduct or other legal obligations.

In addition to the law as it applies to citizens, there are a wide variety of special laws which govern international relations and specialized industries. For example, space law addresses the use of outer space by individual countries and international organisations, while tax law consists of regulations concerning value added tax, corporate tax, bank capital regulation and more. Other specialised fields of law are intellectual property, commercial law, and trusts. In general, these laws are intended to protect individuals and businesses from unfair competition, to provide a level playing field in the marketplace and to maintain a semblance of order in civil society. They are also designed to limit the scope of a state’s military and policing powers over its citizens. However, the increasing extension of state power over private citizens through modern governmental bodies and bureaucracies poses special problems for accountability that were not envisioned by earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu.

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