What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to regulate crime, business agreements and social relationships. The word can also be used to refer to the group of people who work within this system. The main categories of law are criminal, civil and property. However, the subject extends far beyond these core areas.

Even in well-ordered societies, disagreements and conflicts arise. Law provides a mechanism for peacefully resolving these disputes without violence. For example, if two people claim ownership of the same piece of land, instead of fighting they turn to the courts, which decide who is the legal owner. Law also ensures that citizens receive equal treatment from the police and other public officials, and from government agencies.

Criminal law deals with acts that are deemed harmful to social order, such as theft and murder. The law defines these offences and stipulates the penalties that can be applied. Civil law covers disputes between individuals and organisations, such as contracts and divorce proceedings. It also stipulates that all citizens have the right to a fair trial and hearing by a judge and jury, and the right to appeal a court decision.

A rich academic field of study surrounds the subject of law. It offers many avenues for scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy and economic analysis. Law has also been a catalyst for debates over social change and the limits of state power. For example, Max Weber reshaped thinking on the extent of state jurisdiction over ordinary citizens’ daily lives.

Law is also a vital part of the structure and operation of modern nations, economies and businesses. Administrative law, for instance, encompasses the laws that govern how an agency or department functions. These laws can be as simple as a rule against making obscene phone calls or as complex as a set of regulations on the financing of political parties.

Finally, the laws that dictate how governments treat their citizens are known as constitutional law. These include principles such as supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law and justice, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty and the avoidance of arbitrariness. In addition, the constitution may also lay down specific standards of conduct for public officers and officials. The concept of constitutional law has been further developed by international legal institutions such as the United Nations. A country wishing to be a member of these bodies must comply with the highest constitutional standards. In practice, this requires a rigorous law-enforcement agency and a vigorous legal profession, with lawyers earning distinct professional identities through formal procedures (passing a qualifying examination) and attaining a high level of education and experience, usually culminating in the award of a Master of Laws, Bachelor of Laws or Juris Doctor degree. In many countries, the legal profession is overseen by a bar association or other independent regulatory body.