What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. The precise definition of law has long been debated, but scholars agree it involves the application of principles enacted by an authority to settle disputes or provide guidance for citizens. The rules are applied to all members of a society regardless of their status or wealth, and if they are broken sanctions can be imposed. The main purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving conflict and protecting liberties and rights. Some governments excel at these whilst others struggle to do so, and the law is often a reflection of a nation’s political landscape.

The exact nature of the law and its functions vary widely from place to place, but many authors have argued that the law is a mediator between people. In this role it is a crucial part of human civilisation, a key component in societies with democratic politics. It is also an important tool for the protection of individual rights and freedoms, and provides a framework to ensure peace and stability in a country.

A central feature of most laws is a constitution, which may be written or implicit and lays out the fundamental principles of a nation-state. The constitution defines the boundaries of the state and gives its rulers legitimacy to make and enforce the law.

While the constitution sets out a broad outline of the law, it is left to judges and lawyers to flesh out its details through legal precedent. This is especially true in “common law” systems, where decisions by judges are binding on future courts as a matter of principle. In contrast, in most “civil law” jurisdictions, legislative statutes and executive decrees trump judge-made case-law.

In modern societies, the law extends beyond a nation-state and into the realm of international affairs. This is particularly true with regard to the law of war, where there are many treaties governing the behaviour of nations in times of conflict. It is also possible for law to govern the activities of private businesses, such as banks or energy companies.

The study of law is a vast subject, with different areas of law covering nearly all aspects of life. The core subjects are criminal law, property law and family law, but other areas include labour law, corporate law and medical jurisprudence.

Other key topics are administrative law, which covers the rules governing government agencies and the administration of justice; criminal procedure, which deals with how trials are conducted; and evidence law, which determines what materials are admissible in court.

The law influences and shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. There are many articles in this catalogue examining these influences, as well as those exploring the relationship between law and other disciplines, such as philosophy, religion or sociology. A career in the law is becoming increasingly popular amongst young people, and the Law Library provides an excellent resource to help students find the right course for them.