What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that social or governmental institutions enforce to regulate behaviour. The precise nature of this system varies from place to place, but all systems aim to fulfil the same basic functions: keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights and protect minorities against majorities. In order to achieve these goals, laws must be clear, publicly available and stable, and justice should be impartial, accessible and delivered fairly.

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The legal system varies greatly between nation-states, and there are many different types of laws. For example, terrorism cases are handled in a variety of ways, depending on the country. Some jurisdictions have special courts that are designed to deal with terrorism-related crimes. Others treat them as regular criminal cases, using the same procedures and judges that would be used in non-terrorism cases.

Generally, the sources of law are legislation (codifications such as constitutions and statutes passed by the government) and case law. The latter is the most important, and is based on the precedent established by courts in previous cases. This type of law reaches back millennia, and the most famous case-law system is probably that of medieval England, which built on the foundation laid by Roman law.

Other significant areas of the law are labour law, which governs wages and conditions of work; immigration law and nationality law, which deal with a person’s right to live and work in a nation-state that is not their own; family law, which covers marriage, divorce proceedings, child custody and access to children’s property; and commercial law, which deals with complex contracts and property rights.

A key question for legal scholars is how laws are created and enforced. Some are created by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes; some are enacted by an executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; and others are established by court decisions, leading to the development of a body of precedent called common law.

The power of a government or state to extend its influence over a community also poses questions about how the law is applied and enforced, and this is the subject of constitutional law, public international law, human rights law and political science. For example, Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking about the extension of power by modern states, which have extended military, police and bureaucratic powers over citizens in a way that Locke and Montesquieu could not have envisaged.

The law has to be able to cope with these challenges and this requires a broad spectrum of skills and expertise. In addition, it is important that those involved in making and implementing the law have the highest possible integrity and impartiality. This requirement is particularly relevant for those who are appointed to act as judges, advocates and other legal professionals.