What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules that a particular society accepts and enforces to govern its members’ behaviour. The precise nature of law is a matter of long-standing debate, but the principal purposes of laws are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Laws may be created by group legislature, resulting in statutes; by executive decree and regulation; or established through judicial decision and precedent, as in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that have legal force. Laws are applied in a variety of fields, including criminal law; tort law; labour law; administrative law; constitutional law; property law; intellectual property law; and family and inheritance law.

One theory of law posits that it is an instrument for social control and coercion, with the power to compel people to do what the state requires them to do. Another theory is that law satisfies certain social wants: for example, property law provides compensation to those who suffer loss of possessions, and criminal law punishes those who commit offenses against the state.

The philosopher John Austin defined law as “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom men have a habit of obedience.” He and other utilitarian theorists held that laws are justified by reference to some higher moral purpose. Naturalists, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that natural law is a set of universal moral principles.

Roscoe Pound’s theory of law viewed it as an aspect of human culture. He considered it to be a ‘natural science’ that is constantly being modified by the people and their needs. He further stated that custom precedes and is superior to legislation. His view is similar to the anthropological concept of law as a cultural phenomenon.

The modern concept of law is based on the United Nations’ “rule of law” standard, which states that governments and all other institutions should be subject to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. This concept of law has been criticized for its lack of respect for the sovereignty of nations and for its overreach into economic and political matters.

The specifics of a country’s law are determined by its history and its relationship with other countries. For instance, India has a Hindu and Islamic legal tradition, while Japan was the first Asian country to modernize its laws along Western lines. This led to the adoption of a civil law system. Other systems are rooted in ancient scriptures or a combination of secular and religious influences.