What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by governments to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect people’s liberties and rights. Different nations have many differing legal systems that serve different purposes. Generally, a nation’s government enforces the laws it makes. When a government fails to meet these objectives, citizens often rebel against it or seek to form an alternative political-legal system (e.g., during a revolution).

While there is no exact definition of law, the term encompasses various theories on the nature of a legal system and its role in society. One school of thought, called utilitarianism, holds that laws should be based on social needs and should be easy for people to understand. Another school of thought, referred to as natural law, maintains that laws should reflect a moral basis and be consistent with each person’s conscience.

A logical approach to understanding the law involves looking at the various areas of law and their interrelationships. Contract law, for example, defines people’s responsibilities and rights to each other in commercial transactions. Criminal law aims to keep society safe and discourages violence and crime. Family law covers marriage, divorce proceedings and the rights of children. Property law, on the other hand, outlines people’s rights to ownership of tangible possessions, such as houses or cars, as well as intangible ones, such as bank accounts or shares of stock.

Other branches of law include administrative, constitutional and international law. Administrative law consists of the regulations that govern public institutions, such as banks or airlines. Constitutional law, in turn, establishes a country’s basic principles and rights. International law, on the other hand, deals with the resolution of conflicts between different countries or regions.

Each area of law has its own specialized vocabulary. For instance, lawyers and judges use terms such as “facts of the case,” which refer to the evidence that will be used in a trial. A judge’s ruling, called a “decision,” will be based on the facts and evidence presented.

Regardless of the definition of law, it is widely accepted that there are certain minimum requirements for a legal system to be considered to be “the rule of law.” These include the ability for citizens to understand and comply with laws, for laws to be fairly established and applied, and for them to be reasonably stable, so that people can plan their activities over time with some confidence in knowing what will happen.

It is also widely agreed that laws should aim to protect against anarchy and the Hobbesian war of all against all, preserve individual rights, and promote social justice. However, the degree to which a nation’s laws meet these goals varies from nation to nation, and some governments are more effective than others at serving these objectives. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but will often oppress minorities and restrict individual rights. Likewise, democracy may encourage the growth of social justice but can create unstable or volatile political-legal environments.