What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules created by a nation or other sovereign authority that establishes a framework for a social order. The laws are enforceable by mechanisms created by the state and sanctions may be imposed when they are broken.

There are four main types of legal systems: common law, civil law, religious law and customary law. Within each type, there is considerable variation based on precedent and local practices.

The law informs everyday life in a wide variety of ways. For example, contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, while property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible personal possessions (e.g., land and buildings), money, investments and even thoughts and ideas. Law also relates to the relationships between people and the natural world, such as the right to use water or the rules of biodiversity conservation.

A country’s laws are usually determined by its constitution and the legislative branch of government (e.g., parliament or congress). The executive branch agencies often create regulations to supplement or clarify laws enacted by the legislature. These are deemed to be law when they are published in the Federal Register and codified in the Code of Federal Regulations. Judicial decisions interpreting the meaning of statutes and regulations carry the force of law under the “doctrine of stare decisis.”

Most societies have laws to ensure that people obey moral, ethical, and social norms. This helps keep society peaceful and allows individuals to pursue their goals without interfering with the rights of others. The law can also protect people from tyranny or oppression and allow for democratic participation in the political process. However, the creation and enforcement of laws is complex. There are many competing claims for power and authority in a democratic system, making it difficult to achieve perfect justice or predictably settle disputes.

Throughout history, many theories of the nature and purpose of law have been developed. Hans Kelsen, for example, created the ‘pure theory of law’ which asserted that the law is a ‘normative science’ and does not attempt to describe what must occur but only sets certain rules to be followed. This approach contrasts with the ‘functionalist theory of law’, which holds that the law is the product of human needs and desires and must therefore be constantly evolving to meet the changing demands of society. Neither of these theories is widely accepted at present. The law continues to be shaped by the changing needs of a society and by the competing claims of various political and economic interests. It remains to be seen whether current trends towards globalization and increased emphasis on individual rights will further complicate the development of law.