What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that regulates behaviour and ensures that individuals or a community adhere to a set of values. The laws may be created by a collective legislature in the form of statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations or established through courts in the form of precedent (known as stare decisis). Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts, known as contracts of adhesion. A legal system is a complex structure, which includes not only the formal laws but also the institutions, customs and practices that support them.

Law consists of many different subjects, which are usually grouped into three broad categories, though the subject areas intertwine and overlap. The first is the law of property, which covers ownership and control of everything from cars to diamonds. This law is often influenced by ancient property codes such as the Code of Hammurabi or later Roman laws on inheritance. The second area is the law of persons, which covers personal rights and duties. This field stretches from the legal rules of evidence to rights in family, criminal and civil proceedings. This area of the law is often influenced by Max Weber, who reshaped thinking on the extension of state power over citizens’ daily lives. The third area is the law of action, covering legal rules for the conduct of business and for the resolution of disputes. This area of the law includes such fields as contract law, antitrust laws, securities and labour law.

In some jurisdictions, the law is described by a number of terms, such as case law or common law and statutory law or written law. A court decision is said to be “a rule of law” if it has been followed in subsequent similar cases, based on the principle that judges should interpret previous decisions and not make their own rules from scratch. Statutory laws are enacted by legislatures and usually take the form of detailed legislative acts, while the decisions of courts are often shorter and more concise, with judges writing to decide only the case they are presiding over rather than to set out reasoning that will bind future courts.

In the modern world, laws are influenced by a range of other factors, such as international treaties and conventions, political ideology and the cultural makeup of the society in which they operate. Law can also be influenced by the notion of justice, as defined by philosophers such as John Locke and Montesquieu. The concept of justice seeks to provide equality, fairness and proportionality in the distribution of goods, privileges and burdens in a society. It is often viewed as one of the fundamental elements in a democratic political system.