What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that society or a government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. The word can also refer to a particular branch of law, such as criminal or business laws, and the people who work in this field, called lawyers. Law also can be used to describe any written or unwritten principle that must be obeyed, such as a moral law or the laws of nature.

The main functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect individuals against majorities and minorities, promote social justice, and provide for orderly social change. The extent to which a nation’s laws serve these purposes varies greatly from place to place, and some legal systems are more effective than others at fulfilling these goals.

A key debate in the history of law centers around the extent to which a legal system incorporates morality. Utilitarian theories of law, such as those of John Austin and Jeremy Bentham, assert that law is simply commands, backed by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign, to which people have developed a habit of obedience. Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, have argued that law reflects fundamental, moral, and unchanging laws of nature.

In modern legal systems, the rules of a law are contained in two broad categories: statutes and judicial decisions. Statutes are legislative actions of a government body that set forth detailed guidelines for particular areas of the law, and judicial decisions, or precedents, are the rulings by courts on individual cases. The doctrine of stare decisis states that the decision of a higher court binds lower courts and should guide future decisions.

Throughout history, the laws of a nation have evolved over time, and the development of specific branches of law often mirrors technological and economic developments. For example, contract law was developed in response to the need for enforceable agreements in commercial transactions, while family and property law developed to address changes in the ways that societies structure their families and ownership of land and other possessions.

Other areas of law reflect social trends, such as the increased emphasis on equality and environmental concerns in recent years. Moreover, as the world becomes more globalized, there is an increasing need for international law. This has given rise to new branches of law, such as environmental law, international trade law, and intellectual property law. The study of law is a complex and rewarding endeavor that can lead to a variety of careers, from being an attorney to working in the insurance industry. The discipline also has numerous subfields, such as criminology and the sociology of law.