What is Law?

Law is a term used to describe social and governmental rules that regulate and limit behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people. It is also the focus of much scholarly inquiry in subjects such as legal history, philosophy and sociology.

A general distinction can be made between civil law jurisdictions (which usually follow a written constitution) and common law systems in which judge-made precedent is binding. The former tend to be more organised and formal, while the latter are less so. Religious law is also a major source of law, with the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia amongst the world’s most detailed examples.

Regulatory laws cover such topics as taxation and social security. These are designed to make sure that the population’s social needs are met, and they may be intended to encourage good behaviour, such as by requiring people to wear seatbelts. Criminal laws aim to control antisocial behaviour by penalising it. Other types of laws are designed to protect individuals, for example in areas such as privacy and copyright. These types of laws are often controversial.

The Rule of Law is a key political ideal, and it is generally understood to mean that citizens must have access to laws that are publicly promulgated and fairly enforced. This principle demands adherence to a set of principles that go far beyond a simple edict, and they include supremacy of the law, equality before the law, transparency in the law, accountability to the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty and avoiding arbitrariness.

There are very few living cultures that do not use a law-based system of organisation and regulation. Such societies have a very different concept of law, based on an immanent, probabilistic sense of what is right and wrong. This view of law is at odds with the legal philosophy of the nineteenth century, most notably the work of Jeremy Bentham.

The subject of law is very broad, covering almost all areas of human activity and interaction. For example, employment law covers the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, while evidence law concerns which materials are admissible in court. The law of war and the military are highly specialised areas, while the law on property covers such issues as ownership of land, the right to inheritance, the passing on of debts and property rights. Other important areas include health and safety law, consumer protection and environmental protection.