What Is Law?

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Law, in a broad sense, is the collective set of rules that social or governmental institutions make and enforce to regulate human behaviour. It can be created and enforced by a legislative body, resulting in statutes; by the executive, through decrees or regulations; or by judges through caselaw, in common law jurisdictions.

Law is important because it lays the foundations of social cooperation and the maintenance of peace, order and public security. It also ensures that everyone is treated fairly and equally and prevents the abuse of power by individuals or by monopolies. It also provides a framework for the conduct of business and a method of dispute resolution.

The law covers a wide variety of topics, including criminal, family and property laws. Criminal law imposes punishments for conduct that is considered to be harmful to society, and civil laws deal with the resolution of lawsuits (disputes).

There are many different theories of law. Hans Kelsen proposed the ‘pure theory of law’, which states that the law is a normative science that simply defines rules that individuals have to abide by. Friedrich Karl von Savigny’s historical theory states that the law is organic and emerges from the common consciousness of a society.

Another theory is that the law consists of principles that are not subject to empirical verification. In addition, the nature of the law implies a high degree of trust in authority. As such, there are few ways to verify that a particular law comprises precepts of a certain significance.

Legal systems vary widely around the world, and include both constitutional and common law approaches to governing. Constitutional law delineates the rights encoded in a nation’s written or unwritten constitution. International law addresses the relationships between nation-states via treaties and other agreements. International organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union have established various types of law relating to their areas of activity.

Law can be based on religion or culture, and may address issues of equality and justice. For example, Islamic law has a large component of Shari’a, which is based on religious precepts. Other religious law systems exist, such as Jewish Halakha and Christian canon law. The law is also an object of study for a wide range of academic disciplines, such as anthropology, history, political science and sociology. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, and is a key element of any modern society. For more on this topic, see the articles on law and jurisprudence; legal philosophy; and legal education and training. Several other articles discuss the relationship of the law to other social sciences, and to political structures: see the articles on constitutional systems; and law and democracy. Law is also an area of intense scholarly debate. See the articles on law and philosophy; and legal sociology.