What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, and varies widely across countries and cultures. Law is a central part of the legal process, and includes everything from criminal and civil laws to constitutional law and international treaties. Law has been a subject of philosophical inquiry for centuries, but is difficult to categorize as a discipline or science. It is unlike other social practices in that it has a normative, prescriptive character; it purports to guide human behaviour and give rise to reasons for action. The problem of describing this aspect of law is one of the major challenges of general jurisprudence, as well as a reason for the interest in its study.

The primary functions of law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights. Legal systems differ greatly from nation to nation, as do the social conditions that make them work or not. For example, authoritarian governments keep the peace and maintain the status quo but may oppress minorities or prevent democratic change; in contrast, stable democracies generally respect individual rights and ensure orderly social change.

The concept of law is highly complicated and the specifics of each country’s system are numerous, but there are certain characteristics common to all legal systems. For example, the rule of law requires adherence to certain principles: supremacy of the law, equality before the law, independence of the judiciary and the executive, participation in decision-making, legal certainty and avoidance of arbitrariness.