What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that a society or government develops to control behavior, whether it’s criminal activity, business agreements or relationships between people. The precise definition of law has been a subject of debate for centuries, but it’s usually described as anything that a society or a government defines and enforces as its own set of strict rules.

The primary purposes of law are to establish standards and maintain order, resolve disputes and protect individuals’ liberties and rights. The way a nation’s laws are developed can also affect its politics, economics and history, and shape relations between nations. For example, a regime that imposes its own style of rule may keep peace and maintain the status quo but might oppress minorities or political opponents (e.g., Burma under Saddam Hussein). Or, a country might adopt the Western legal tradition of civil rights and the separation of church and state to become an open democracy.

Law is a broad area of study that includes everything from the Constitution to international relations. It also encompasses the many branches of a legal system, such as tort law (the law that applies to personal injuries, including car accidents and defamation), labour law (which regulates the tripartite relationship between employer, employee and trade union) and constitutional law (which covers the procedure for impeachment of a president or other high public official). A key element of law is case law, which refers to previous court decisions that influence how new cases should be decided. Other important elements of the law include: