What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules that form a framework to ensure a harmonious society. It defines people’s rights and duties toward each other and toward tangible and intangible property. It covers a wide range of activities and is highly complex. It is also a discipline and profession that encompasses an extensive academic literature.

A large variety of legal systems exist, based on differing historical traditions and social philosophies. There is a great deal of debate over what constitutes law, and some scholars have written books with numerous different ideas about the nature of law. In the end, though, most definitions of law focus on some core principles.

The main functions of a legal system are to (1) keep the peace and maintain the status quo, (2) preserve individuals’ rights against powerful governmental or private actors, (3) promote social justice, and (4) facilitate orderly change. Law is not the same everywhere, however, and some national laws serve these purposes better than others. Governments that are unstable or authoritarian, for example, tend to fail to serve these principal functions.

There are many branches of law, each governing specific types of activities or property. Contract law governs agreements to exchange goods and services of value, ranging from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Real estate law (sometimes called property or land law) defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible property (i.e., their homes or land), whereas personal property law regulates ownership of movable things like computers and cars. Intellectual property law, company law and trust law are other areas of law.

All these laws are enforced by courts. Judges and magistrates are typically lawyers with specialized training in their area of law, and they can be called upon to settle disputes or make binding decisions in cases that are brought before them. Most jurisdictions have some kind of court hierarchy, with appellate and supreme courts having greater authority than lower courts. The legal profession is also governed by a number of professional codes and societies. In modern times, the practice of law is usually overseen by a government or independent regulating body. Lawyers achieve their distinct professional identity through specified legal procedures and may obtain higher academic degrees such as a Master of Laws or a Doctor of Law.

Most legal systems depend on some kind of precedent, with judges and other practitioners referring to previous case law as guides in their decisions. This helps to ensure consistency and predictability, and it reduces costs by allowing parties to avoid legal pitfalls that could otherwise require them to re-examine their arguments in each case. Judging practices vary by jurisdiction, and some legal systems have less respect for precedent than others. In such cases, fine questions of law are often redetermined anew every time they arise, leading to longer and more protracted proceedings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to inefficiency and inaccuracy.