What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules governing human behavior, enforced by social institutions, to ensure order and prevent conflict. Its precise definition has long been debated, but most theories agree that it refers to a system of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign authority. The word “law” also reflects the way that these commands are carried out, with a legal system consisting of courts that interpret and apply the rules to individual cases as they arise. Law can be created by a legislature, producing statutes; by an executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or through court precedent, as in common law systems (with England being the exemplar). Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that substitute for traditional court litigation.

In addition to the traditional branch of law that covers criminal, civil and administrative law, there are numerous specialty branches of law. Tort law helps people make claims for compensation when someone harms them or their property. Intellectual property laws protect the rights of creators, such as artists and musicians, to their creations, by granting them a copyright. Business laws, such as corporate, banking and trust law, regulate the ways that money is invested in a company, and the law of contracts governs the exchange of goods and services.

Legislative history is important when interpreting statutes, as it helps to understand what behavior lawmakers intended to encourage or discourage. Although judges and scholars differ on how much this matters when determining the meaning of a statute, it’s generally considered that any words with multiple meanings should be interpreted in their ordinary sense.