What Is Law?


Law is a body of rules and principles established and enforced by a sovereign authority. It covers a wide variety of subjects, from human rights to property and the environment. Its primary functions are to keep the peace, maintain social order and ensure that everyone is treated fairly. Some legal systems fulfill these goals better than others. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and preserve the status quo but often oppresses minorities or suppresses freedom of expression. A more democratic government may have trouble keeping the peace and preserving the status quo but is generally less oppressive of minority groups or political opponents.

A legal system is often a mix of religious, historical and cultural traditions combined with modern ideas. Some laws are explicitly based on religion, such as Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia. Others are derived from religion through interpretation, such as Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) or Ijma (consensus).

Another important function of law is to settle disputes peacefully rather than violently. For instance, if two people claim to own the same piece of property, the law can decide who owns it. Similarly, if a person is injured by a drunk driver, the law can determine who was at fault.

Law also helps to provide basic services such as water, electricity and gas. Some of these services are provided by the government while others are private businesses that must be regulated by the law. The rules governing these services must be clear, publicized, stable and applied evenly. Laws must also respect individual rights and allow for a variety of opinions to be expressed, even when these differ from the majority view.

Legal systems also vary by the way they organize law and the process of interpreting it. Some countries have “civil law” where the judicial process is based on legal statutes and a doctrine of stare decisis, which means that decisions made by higher courts bind lower courts and future judges. Other countries have “common law” where decisions are based on a system of precedent, but judges can use their own creative jurisprudence to interpret those rulings and adapt them to new circumstances.

Other areas of law include labor and employment, which governs employees’ contracts and workplace conditions. Family law and criminal law regulate marriages and other personal relationships, while property law sets the rights and duties toward tangible property such as homes and cars. Tax law establishes a system for collecting and distributing taxes. Banking law and financial regulation set minimum standards for banks and rules about best practices in investing, to help prevent economic crises such as the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Law is also studied through the fields of arbitration; criminal and civil procedure; law enforcement; constitutional and international law; and law, philosophy of. See the articles on legal education and the legal profession for more information. Law, anthropology of is also available.