What is Law?


Law is a system of principles and rules established by the governing authority in a community and enforced by the sanction of its courts. It can be written or unwritten, and it may comprise statutes, custom and policies, or the decisions of judges. Law is also the controlling influence that it exerts on a society; its observance brings about order and discipline.

Law has many sub-fields: labour law involves a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union; family law covers the rights of families to property and money; corporate or business law is concerned with contracts, companies, partnerships and trusts; criminal law examines prosecution of crimes; administrative law is about the operation of government agencies like the civil service and the police; and biolaw is the intersection of laws with the life sciences.

Law’s emergence as a social institution was influenced by a number of factors: utilitarian theories, notably Bentham’s; natural lawyers, such as Rousseau; and the extension of state power, exemplified in the military, policing and bureaucracy of modern times, that Max Weber reshaped thinking about. See the articles on legal profession, legal education and legal ethics for more on these topics. In some jurisdictions, the law is based on religious precepts (e.g. Jewish Halakha or Islamic Shari’a), and canon law survives in some church communities. In other jurisdictions, law is based on human elaboration, such as interpretation (qiyas and ijma), and precedent and case law.