What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and prevent harmful actions. Its precise definition has been the subject of long-standing debate. It can be a set of rules established by a legislature or a single legislator, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges in a common law jurisdiction through court decisions that become precedent. Private individuals may also create legal contracts that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation, such as arbitration agreements.

The primary function of laws is to control society and to help avoid and resolve conflicts. Laws ensure that people cooperate in a way that promotes peace and stability. They also protect individual rights. For example, the law prevents violence between property owners and ensures that a person’s life is not taken without due process.

In many countries, there are different schools of thought on what the law actually is. The legal system of the United States is based on common law, in which laws are derived from case law and judge-made decisions rather than legislative acts. In some countries, laws are based on ancient customs that have been passed down through generations.

Regardless of which school of thought is adopted, most laws must be interpreted by humans—lawyers and judges. While this can lead to disagreements, it is the role of the legal system to try to interpret and apply the law in a fair and reasonable manner.