What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a society or government develops to deal with such things as crime, business agreements and social relationships. The precise definition of law is a matter of long debate, but it usually includes some kind of rule that must be obeyed or punished for breaking it. Law can also refer to the legal profession or to the field of study that deals with the law, such as criminal law, family law, corporate law and tort law.

Law informs politics, economics and history in a variety of ways and has served as a mediator of relations between people. It is a vast and varied topic that is shaped by many competing pulls, from ideological philosophy to economic interests to moral values.

In modern jurisprudence, the term “law” is generally used to mean any kind of legal practice that is sanctioned by a recognized authority, such as a judge, prosecutor or police officer. The practice of law involves a wide range of specialties, from criminal law and environmental law to family law and corporate law. Each of these fields has its own subfields, including forensic science and constitutional law.

The concept of law has many definitions, from John Austin’s utilitarian theory that laws are simply commands, backed by the threat of punishment, from a sovereign that people tend to follow because they believe it is right, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of natural law as a moral and unchangeable set of principles innate in human nature that must be followed. The philosophy of jurisprudence has been reshaped by Max Weber and others, who have highlighted the limits of law’s power and the need to account for it in the context of broader social and political processes.

A country’s legal system depends on its culture and the structure of its government, which in turn depends on the social and historical landscape. A country’s laws may be influenced by religious traditions, such as Jewish halakha and Islamic Sharia, or by the legacy of Christian canon law.

In most places, there are laws that prohibit certain actions, such as murder or stealing, and the law punishes those who break these laws. Other laws may regulate what types of activities are acceptable, such as employment or taxation. There are also laws about what evidence is admissible in court cases, and this is the area of law called evidence law. Lastly, there is a field of law called contract law that covers the terms of agreements between people or companies and relates to the rights and duties of property ownership. These are the kinds of laws that most people think of when they hear the word “law.” The word may also be used more broadly to describe the entire body of law that exists in a specific geographic area, such as a state or country. See also international law; war, law of; and terrorism, law of.