What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by social or governmental institutions that can be enforced by mechanisms such as penalties. Its precise definition has been a subject of long-standing debate.

In a modern context, laws usually refer to a set of enforceable rules that govern a nation’s society, with the goal of maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting fundamental rights such as freedoms and property. Laws can be made at the federal or state level, and may be regulated by public bodies such as courts, parliaments and executive agencies. Private firms also create legally binding contracts that comply with the law, such as commercial contracts and employment agreements. The term law can also be used to refer to an idea or principle, such as justice and fairness or the right of self-preservation.

A large part of law is established through the courts, which deal with disputes between individuals and between individuals and organizations. The judicial system sets precedents for future cases, based on a judge’s interpretation of the law. This is called common law and differs from constitutional law, which is derived from the constitution of a particular country.

The legal system is a complex interweaving of various components, with different branches governing distinct areas of society. The main areas are contract law (agreements of any kind between two parties), criminal law (crimes committed against the community or individual, including traffic violations and murders) and civil law (civil disputes over money, property and inheritance). In addition, there is a branch that regulates the banking industry, another addressing taxation and corporate law. Another important area is regulation, a form of governance that ensures companies doing jobs previously controlled by government are held to a certain standard of social responsibility. For example, a company operating an oil refinery must follow environmental and safety laws.

While there are many philosophies of law, the most influential is probably utilitarianism, founded on the theory that a society should aim at maximizing its overall happiness. Utilitarian thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and John Austin defined the concept of law as commandments backed by the threat of sanctions that people obey out of a sense of duty. Some philosophers, however, have argued that the law should reflect morality rather than a specific utilitarian goal.

In practice, the law reflects the needs of a society and its changing values. It should be clear, comprehensive and easily accessible to all citizens. It should promote fairness and justice, and be independent of wealth and status. The most successful laws will make people feel safe and secure, and be based on solid research. Law students should therefore become adept at reading and writing, to develop their skills of legal analysis and research. They should use legal databases, scholarly articles and primary source legal materials to gather comprehensive information on their chosen topic. They should pay special attention to recent developments, conflicting viewpoints and gaps in the literature. They should also be able to write clearly and concisely.