What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, with different scholars offering a wide range of theories. In a nutshell, law is a set of principles or norms that govern the conduct of individuals or communities and that, when followed, ensure justice. The law may be state-enforced, resulting in statutes and regulations; or it may be privately enforceable, such as contracts and arbitration agreements, which adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation. It may be a mixture of both, as in the case of common law jurisdictions that combine legislative statutes with judge-made judicial decisions based on precedent, often called stare decisis.

The concept of law varies from one jurisdiction to the next, with the nature of a legal system strongly influenced by its constitution, ideology, political party and history. The definition of law is also shaped by the specific purposes that are sought: solving recurrent coordination problems, proclaiming symbolic expressions of communal values, resolving disputes over facts and so on. While some theories stress the coercive aspect of law, imposing sanctions on citizens through the threat or force of violence, other theories challenge this assumption.

It is generally agreed that the law consists of both positive and negative laws, which are, respectively, a set of socially desirable behaviors and the sanctions that accompany them. However, there is a significant amount of controversy over what defines a positive law. This is largely due to the fact that it is not easy to distinguish a positive law from other positive social norms, which have less coercive power than laws.

Law is an important feature of any human society, regulating a variety of areas from trade to personal conduct to private property. Some of the most important laws are those that guarantee fundamental human rights, including freedom from slavery, torture and forced marriage, along with ensuring fair trials and equal treatment in court.

There are many branches of law, with the specifics varying by jurisdiction. For example, labour law concerns the relationship between an employer and employee, with some laws requiring the use of unions, and others allowing employees to choose their employers. Property law involves the rights and duties of people toward their tangible possessions, which can be intangible such as money or stock options, or physical, such as land or vehicles.

Theories of law are incredibly diverse, reflecting the different ways in which the concept is viewed by those who practice it. However, some of the most well-known include Hans Kelsen’s pure theory of law, which describes it as a “normative science” that seeks to describe what must occur and only defines certain rules for people to follow. Another is Friedrich Karl von Savigny’s historical law theory, which states that law has its origins in custom and culture, and should conform to it. Other popular law theories include the logical positivists, such as Bentham and Austin, who believe that the essence of law is its practical application.