Law is a system of rules and policies that people or communities create and enforce to regulate behaviour. It is often based on custom, but may also be created by the state, resulting in a set of statutes; or by judges through precedent (in common law countries); or by individuals through contractual agreements or arbitration. People who create laws may be called lawmakers, legislators or judges; those who practice law are called lawyers or jurists.
The purpose of law is to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens. It is used to prevent unfair treatment, protect property and ensure that contracts and business transactions are fair. The legal system also includes courts and police to enforce laws.
A societal need for order and safety drives the creation of law. When people are free to act unpredictably, disorder and disaster follow. Laws are needed to maintain peace, ensure the health and safety of citizens and prevent property damage. In some societies, the creation of laws is a purely economic concern; in others, it is motivated by social or religious concerns.
The most common way of creating laws is through the legislature – groups of politicians elected to represent the peoples they govern. In this form of lawmaking, the public can suggest changes to existing laws and have a say in how laws are created. Laws can also be made by individual legislators, resulting in statutes, or by the executive, through decrees and regulations, or by judges through precedent.
A second law definition comes from the philosopher Hans Kelsen, who claimed that law is a ‘normative science’ – a science that tries to describe what must occur rather than what should be done. His theory is that the basic principles of law are already known in our culture through customs and social habits, which are superior to any new laws.
Other forms of law include intellectual property law, which relates to the rights over things that people create, such as art, music and literature, and can be protected by a kind of law called copyright; patent law, which concerns inventions that need to be kept secret; and trademark law, which relates to the name of a company or its logo.
The laws of a nation are shaped by the power relationships of its government, military and people. There is often a struggle for greater democracy and rights for citizens, which are the fundamental functions of law. The political landscape of a nation is very different from one to another, and revolutions can often take place in an attempt to change the status quo. In many cases, these efforts are successful, and a more democratic and just society is established. The power to create and enforce law is therefore a very powerful force in any country. However, this power can be used by a few people to benefit themselves at the expense of the many. This is a problem that can lead to conflict and war.