The Definition of Law


Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced by societal or government institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is the subject of longstanding debate. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It is the basis of much scholarly study, including law and philosophy, legal history, political science, social work, sociology, public policy and economic analysis.

The laws that govern a nation are determined mainly by the people who command military or political power. Revolts against existing political-legal authority are a recurring feature of human history, and the aspiration for democracy and greater rights for citizens is a constant theme in contemporary political thought. Nevertheless, despite the often tumultuous nature of politics and the difficulty of imposing democracy on unwilling people, there is a general consensus that, whatever its imperfections, law serves the important function of creating a framework within which humans may live together peacefully.

A wide variety of laws exist to cover many different aspects of life. Some are specific to particular fields of activity, for example the law regulating contracts (see commercial transaction) or the laws that govern aviation or carriage of goods. Others are more general, for example the law governing the property of individuals (see property law). A further category is criminal laws, which deal with conduct that threatens public order and which can be punished by a controlling authority.

Some countries, such as the United States, use a common law system in which judges’ decisions are compiled into a body of case law. Other countries use a civil law system in which codes specify the rules that judges must follow when reaching their decisions.

While the definition of law is a matter of controversy, most experts agree that it consists of a set of precepts, enforceable through sanctions by a controlling authority, that establishes right and wrong behaviour in a given context. It also establishes a hierarchy of values that must be adhered to. The law must be based on the shape of the physical world and the limitations inherent in it; otherwise, attempts to impose certain forms of behaviour will not succeed.

The law must respect the basic freedoms of individuals (see liberty and privacy). It must be fair in its application to all members of society, irrespective of social status or wealth. It must ensure that those who perform public duties, such as police and government officials, do so properly and without malice or discrimination. It must provide a means of resolving disputes between individuals.

Finally, the law must be based on evidence. This includes a fair trial process, where the parties to a lawsuit present and cross-examine witnesses who have information relevant to the dispute. It must be free of bias, and a judge’s decisions must be impartial. A legal system is not complete without a jury pool, from which actual jurors are chosen to hear the case through a process called voir dire.