Law is the system of rules that a community creates and enforces in order to regulate human behaviour. The precise nature of laws is a matter of debate: some philosophers, like Jeremy Bentham, have argued that they are commands backed by the threat of sanction from a sovereign authority to which people have a habit of obedience; others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have asserted that they reflect a moral code innate in the universe and endorsed by a divine being.
The study of law encompasses both constitutional and private law; constitutional law relates to the limits on government power set out in an official document, such as a constitution; private law is the system of rules that governs individual relationships, such as contracts or the right to privacy. Other important areas include criminal law, which covers a nation’s criminal justice systems; labour law, which involves the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade unions; and civil procedure, which is the body of rules that courts must follow in order to conduct a trial or appeal.
In modern society, the development and enforcement of law is a complex process. Governments enact law in the form of statutes (officially enacted legislative documents), regulations and executive decrees; judges interpret legal precedent through case law; and lawyers advise their clients about specific rules and procedures.
An additional area of debate is the extent to which laws should incorporate morality. The utilitarian arguments of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin have dominated legal thought, but other philosophers have advocated for the inclusion of moral principles in law: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, for example, both defended the notion that there are universal moral laws, unalterable by any individual or group of individuals, that all human beings will recognise as binding upon them.
Some countries, such as the United States, use a common law system based on judicial interpretation; other nations, such as Japan, have adopted civil law systems. There are also religious laws, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, that operate in a similar way to secular laws.
The word is also used colloquially to refer to a certain type of lawyer or to a profession that involves the study of law: Zola dreamed of a career in law, so she studied hard at law school. It is also used to describe a situation or event: It was against the law to leave the building without signing out, so they were arrested. Law is an important part of a well-functioning society, so it is important to understand how law works and what is involved in the creation and implementation of laws. The articles below explore these deeper dimensions of law. They examine law from the perspective of different societies, legal traditions and philosophical approaches to the law. They also look at the interaction between the law and a range of other issues, including social justice, human rights, and property.