What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and protect individuals. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. Law is an interdisciplinary field that draws on philosophy, sociology, economic analysis and history to study the nature of laws and their development. It also raises important and complex issues of equality, fairness and justice.

The main body of law consists of statutes, regulations, and case law. Statutes are passed by a legislature and are typically codified into a code such as the United States Code, which is arranged by subject. Regulations are the result of executive branch agencies and departments, and they are published in the Federal Register and codified into the Code of Federal Regulations. Many lawsuits revolve around interpreting the meaning of federal laws and regulations, and judicial interpretations of their meaning carry significant weight in the legal system.

Legal systems have developed in many different ways, and a rich diversity of legal cultures exists today. Some are highly formalized, such as Roman law and its detailed codes, or the German or Napoleonic civil codes that replaced it. Others are more informal, relying on custom and precedent to guide judges. For example, English common law is an amalgam of ad hoc case decisions that are based on principles of equity and fairness.

Law encompasses the entire spectrum of human activity, from private contracting to political rulemaking and beyond. It is the foundation of modern civilization and a major area for scholarly inquiry, with fields such as law and society, legal history, legal philosophy, and law and economics contributing to the study of law. In addition, law provides an important source of work for lawyers and other legal professionals.

In modern societies, the primary purpose of law is to protect individual rights and property. It is also used to promote social and economic stability by regulating competition and maintaining public order, for example through criminal or civil laws. It can even be used to punish treason, sabotage, terrorism, or war crimes, and it is an essential component of the peace process after conflict has ended. In this context, it is also an important tool for advancing international human rights norms and standards. Law is a central part of the rule of law, which is a concept defined by the UN Charter as a “system of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities are subject to publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated laws, with guarantees of supremacy, equity and independence”. The rule of law requires that laws are clear, accountable, transparent, consistent, and predictable. It also requires measures to ensure adherence to the principle of non-discrimination, separation of powers and participation in decision-making. It is a key element of sustainable development and a fundamental component of a democracy. This is why it is a crucial issue for the UN and its Member States to address.