What is Law?


Law is the system of rules a government or society develops in order to manage relationships between people. Its emergence and development reflects ideas of democracy, justice and the rule of right and wrong. It shapes politics, economics and history in a wide variety of ways. Its study provides a rich source of scholarly inquiry into legal philosophy, sociology and historical analysis.

Law covers an enormous range of subjects, but generally speaking there are three broad categories into which the subject may be broken:

Regulatory law addresses the way laws are adopted and enforced by governments or private entities. This includes laws and policies that establish minimum standards and best practice in areas such as taxation, banking, financial regulation, labour relations and property. Competition law, for example, addresses everything from anti-trust legislation to airline baggage insurance.

A second category of law is criminal law, which deals with offences against the social order. Whether through obscene phone calls or murder, criminal law seeks to punish those who harm others. Civil law, in contrast, aims to protect the rights and property of individuals. This field encompasses fields such as family, divorce, inheritance and tort law (claims for damages when someone else’s property is harmed).

Finally, there are the laws that govern a country or territory. These are the’soft’ laws that establish how a government and its citizens are expected to behave and interact: e.g. a country’s liberal political asylum law.

The subject of Law touches on every aspect of human life. As such, there is no simple definition of it. One could say that it involves the principle of ‘natural law’, which asserts that certain natural processes, like supply and demand, will always produce certain results. Alternatively, it is the ‘law of justice’, which asserts that fairness and equity should underpin the administration of law.

These principles are reflected in laws and policies established by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of any country’s government. They are also reflected in international treaties that are binding on all member states. The four universal principles of Law as developed by the United Nations in 1998 are as follows:

The fourth universal principle relates to the nature and substance of law, as well as how it is administered, adjudicated and enforced. In this respect, the principle requires that law is clear and publicly available, that it is stable and applies evenly, that it ensures human rights and property as well as contractual and procedural rights and that it is based on an impartial and independent judiciary that is accessible to all. It also insists that the law and its processes are democratic and accountable. The legal professions of judges, lawyers and barristers have a responsibility to uphold these principles as part of their professional duties. Legal ethics also play a role in this context. These principles are a cornerstone of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. They have been incorporated into national constitutions and are widely accepted around the world.