What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions that are designed to ensure a peaceful society. The precise nature of this set of rules is subject to much debate, and different laws may exist in different jurisdictions. The law may be created by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by executive decree or regulation, resulting in directives and instructions; or through the judiciary process, resulting in precedent, known as the doctrine of stare decisis. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, such as arbitration agreements, which provide alternative ways to resolve disputes in place of standard court litigation.

The prevailing definition of law is that it is a set of rules imposed by a superior power to be obeyed by its subjects, and which can be enforced by mechanisms backed by sanctions. This definition is generally taken as reflecting the fundamental nature of law as coercive, and it is therefore contested by those who believe that the purpose of laws should be to serve social needs.

In contrast, other definitions focus on the principle of rule of law, which states that a nation-state (or sovereign) must be governed in accordance with a system of laws that is publicly promulgated and equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and consistent with international human rights norms and standards. The principle of rule of law is a complex concept, and it requires many different institutions to function effectively, including the judiciary, police, military, and civil service.

Other definitions of law focus on particular types of law, such as constitutional law; family law; international law; immigration law; and criminal law. These subsets of law are broadly related, with the common thread being that they are all concerned with governing human behavior and addressing individual rights.

A related term is the legal landscape, which describes the political environment within a state or region. The legal landscape is a critical component of the rule of law because it determines who has power to make and enforce laws, and what kind of laws are made. A stable legal landscape will generally be one where the governing body is elected by its constituents, and which has checks and balances to prevent abuse of power by those in authority.

While there is a lot of agreement about the basics of law, there are many different definitions that reflect the diverse nature of the field. The differences are a result of the different views about how laws should be created and interpreted, as well as the different cultures that have given rise to various legal systems throughout history. For more information on these different systems, see law, systems of; legal studies; and legal profession. For more on the relationship between law and the political system, see government; constitution; and politics. For more on the relationship between law and religion, see religion; and jurisprudence.