What Is Law?

A set of rules enforced by a controlling authority that governs human conduct and establishes punishments. Laws may be created by legislative power resulting in statutes; by executive decrees or regulations; or by judicial precedent (case law) in countries that use a common law system. Individuals can also create legally binding contracts, including agreements to arbitrate disputes rather than resorting to court action.

A legal system reflects a nation’s history, culture and values. Many cultures have a tradition of religious or ethical values that underpin the laws in their jurisdiction. In the United States, lawmaking takes place at the federal, state and local levels. Federal legislation can supersede or preempt state law, and it can also authorize the creation of administrative regulations. Some areas of law, such as antitrust and trademark law, are heavily regulated by both state and federal law.

Some nations have a constitutional law that sets forth the relationships between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government as well as the fundamental rights of citizens. Other countries, like Japan, have a civil code that explicitly describes how judges must consider evidence as they decide cases.

The law can be divided into several categories based on its subject matter or purpose:

Criminal law encompasses the punishment of convicted felons, while civil rights and labor laws protect citizens from discrimination. Labour law covers the tripartite industrial relationship of employer, trade union and employee that includes collective bargaining and the right to strike. The law of torts relates to liability for damages, while the law of civil procedure and the law of evidence concern what information is allowed in courts as trials or appeals proceed.

Other types of law include the law of property, family law and international law. Property law outlines people’s rights and duties toward tangible goods, such as real property (real estate), personal property (movable possessions) and intangible assets like intellectual property and company shares. Family law governs marriage, divorce, adoption and child custody. International law deals with public international law, private international law and the relationship between the laws of different jurisdictions.

The law serves many purposes in society, such as keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities from majorities and providing for orderly social change. Various laws exist in different societies to achieve these goals, and some systems of law are more effective than others. For example, a nation that has an authoritarian government may keep the peace but oppress minorities and political opponents. The law can also be used by a nation to export its culture and values, as European nations did when they built empires in Asia and Africa over centuries prior to the twentieth century. These cultural transferences can stifle indigenous traditions. A democracy, on the other hand, can foster diverse communities and nurture new ideas. A free press and an independent judiciary are important components of a democratic legal system. For a democracy to function, the law must be accessible to all its citizens.