What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules and practices that people or communities develop in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. It is also the subject of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. It raises questions of equality, fairness and justice that are of universal significance.

The precise definition of law is a matter of ongoing debate. It is generally agreed, however, that it refers to a set of binding principles or rules that are enforced by society. This is distinguished from other systems of normative control such as ethics, which guide individual choice and morality, or social science laws such as the law of supply and demand, which apply to economic relations.

It is possible to categorize laws into three broad groups, though these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first category, criminal law, encompasses crimes such as murder, fraud and larceny. It is the responsibility of police and the courts to punish violators of the criminal law, and to protect those who are harmed by their actions. The second category, civil law, addresses disputes between individuals or businesses. This is distinguished from the third category, administrative law, which covers government regulations such as taxation and banking laws.

Law can be regarded as having four main purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. These are achieved in different ways by different countries and communities. For example, tort law allows people to claim compensation for harm caused by others, whether from automobile accidents or defamation of character. Laws can also prevent conflict and ensure social change by prohibiting certain activities, such as racial discrimination.

Other areas of law include labour law, property law and bankruptcy law. Labour law involves the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union, while property law concerns ownership of land and property, including the right to sell or rent it. Bankruptcy law outlines procedures for filing for bankruptcy, and bankrupts must comply with the laws of each jurisdiction in which they operate. Evidence law defines what can be presented in court to support a case, and the rules about what must be admitted into evidence.

The emergence of a single European law merchant in the 18th century helped to bring consistency to commercial transactions. This led to the development of civil laws such as the Napoleonic and German codes that consolidated and codified existing local law. Increasingly, there is convergence between civil and common law.