What Is Law?

Law is a body of practices, rules and customs recognised as binding by a community and enforced by social or governmental institutions. It is also a discipline concerned with the societal viewpoints on rationality, justice and morality that form its basis. A law may be a policy, statute, regulation or rule; it can also refer to a court ruling, decision or decree.

The main functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, promote individual rights and property, protect minorities from majorities, allow orderly social change and provide remedies for breaches of those rights. The way in which these functions are served varies widely from nation to nation. A stable, democratic government whose leaders are accountable to their constituents is one of the best ways of fulfilling these functions; authoritarian governments often fail to do so.

Some commentators see law as nothing more than a means of control that uses coercive threats to achieve its goals; this view is sometimes known as a ‘power-based’ theory of the law. Others, however, disagree and suggest that the nature of a law depends on the purpose it serves, rather than how it is used. The philosopher Hans Kelsen developed his own ‘pure theory of the law’, arguing that the law is a ‘normative science’ that defines certain laws to be followed; it does not dictate what must happen but describes what should occur.

The law is an incredibly diverse field, spanning everything from immigration and nationality to family law to business and financial laws. It is also concerned with the law and biology, for example biolaw, and law and technology; the internet is covered by computer and communications law. Other areas of law include taxation, banking and finance, and labour relations. The area of property law is the most extensive, ranging from the right to own land (called a ‘right in rem’) to personal possessions. A legal system also needs to have rules about mortgages, leases, covenants and easements as well as a statutory system for land registration.

The law can be enacted by a legislature, resulting in a statute; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges as precedent, especially in common law jurisdictions. It can also be created by private individuals, for instance through contracts. Private laws are not subject to the same scrutiny as those made by governments, and may be less likely to be enforceable. The precise definition of a law is controversial. Do you think that morals are a part of the law, or do you believe that morality and law are separate concepts? We’d love to hear your thoughts!