What is Law?

Law is the set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. The study of law involves many subjects, including the practice and theory of defending rights and securing justice through legal means. It also provides a source of scholarly inquiry in such fields as history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

Legal subjects are broadly grouped into three categories, though they often intertwine and overlap. Criminal law concerns the punishment of people who are judged to have damaged societal order through their actions. Civil law addresses disputes between individuals or organisations and how those conflicts are resolved through a process of trial and appeal.

In countries with “common law” legal systems, decisions made by judges and barristers are recognised as law on an equal footing with statutes passed through the legislative process and regulations issued by executive bodies. This allows the doctrine of precedent to apply, whereby past court rulings shape future judgements unless overturned through a process of appeal.

By contrast, countries with “civil law” have a more formalised system of legislation and regulation that is usually written in code form to be readily accessible by citizens and jurists. This has allowed the doctrine of stare decisis to become widely applied, with decisions by higher courts binding lower ones to ensure consistency in court rulings on similar situations.

Aside from governing the behaviour of people in society, laws can also be used by governments to control their own internal processes and affairs. Constitutions, for example, impose the legal basis of the political system in each country, and determine who makes and enforces the laws. Attempts to reform existing political and legal structures are an ongoing feature of politics, with revolutionary movements arising in nations all over the world each year. Changing attitudes towards the extension of state power to control private lives through such instruments as the police, military and bureaucracy pose challenges that Max Weber and others could not have anticipated.