What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by human institutions to govern people and relationships. It may be enacted by legislatures and executive bodies resulting in statutes, regulations or decrees, or it can be developed through case law by judges, as common law or judicial precedent. It can also be derived from religious scriptures, such as the Jewish Halakhah or Islamic Shari’a and canon law in Christian communities. Other sources of law are custom, tradition, or practice, or social and moral theories and intuitions of public policy, whether avowed or unconscious.

The precise nature of law is subject to debate and varies greatly across cultures, as do the goals it seeks to achieve. For example, some philosophers have argued that the role of law is to ensure fairness and equity in society, while others have emphasized the importance of legal protections for individual freedoms. The development of laws is often influenced by a country’s history, culture, and political structure.

A major component of legal analysis is determining what the “law” is on a particular issue, which requires a combination of research and analysis of laws and previous court decisions. Several stages of research and interpretation are involved: ascertaining facts, reviewing any relevant statutes, cases or previous decisions, identifying principles, analogies or statements made by earlier courts on the same issue, and drawing inferences about what future decisions might be likely. More recent decisions and those from higher courts or legislatures typically have more weight than older decisions.

While many legal systems have a common basis in the rule of law, different philosophies about law and its relationship to politics, economics, history and society shape its various aims and functions. In addition, the relationship between a country’s legal system and its constitutional framework is an important factor in its overall structure and function.

Most judicial decisions that don’t apply legislative acts (known as statutes) involve one of three broad areas of law: property, contract or tort. Property law addresses ownership of real estate or land, including rights in land (e.g., fee simple, life estates, future interests, easements or rights of way) and movables such as goods, shares or intellectual property. Tort law is the study of civil wrongs and injuries, such as negligence, trespass, libel or slander. Labour law involves the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union and concerns matters such as wage and hour laws, discrimination and the right to strike. Evidence law deals with which materials are admissible in court to support a claim or defense. Other areas include administrative and commercial law, family law, criminal and civil procedure, maritime law and medical jurisprudence. All of these topics are discussed in articles. Other subjects that are dealt with in articles on this site include the legal profession and legal education; legal ethics; legal training; and comparative law. See also articles on legal theory; legal philosophy and jurisprudence; and legal research and writing.