What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, and it has been described as both a science and an art.

Law informs politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways, and it serves as a mediator of relations between people. The legal system can be broadly divided into civil and criminal law, with the former dealing with conduct that is considered harmful to social order and resulting in punishment such as imprisonment or fines.

The latter deals with disputes between individuals or organizations, often involving property or contracts. The laws that govern these areas of life are a product of the cultural, social and political environment in which they operate, and they differ from country to country.

A key issue is who has the power to create and enforce laws. In most nation-states (as countries are called in international law), that power lies with the people or groups who have military or other forms of political authority. In some cases, this power is collectively exercised by a government, but in others it is concentrated in the hands of an individual or group. The resulting balance of power between the governed and those who make and enforce the law is a major source of tension in all societies.

Blackstone’s view of the types of law is consistent with the views of other influential legal thinkers, including Sir Edward Coke and the philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, for example, referred to law as natural law, divine law, human law and municipal or governmental law.

Each of these broad categories is further subdivided into a variety of specific areas, such as contract law, criminal law, family law and property law. Contract law consists of agreements to exchange goods or services for value, such as the purchase of a bus ticket or trading options on a stock market. Criminal law is the body of laws that define and punish crimes, including murder and robbery. Property law identifies people’s rights and duties to tangible personal or intangible property, such as land and buildings, cars and books.

The underlying principles of law are established through an elaborate process, which can include the following: