What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a community recognises as governing its members’ behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of long-standing debate,[1] but it is generally considered to include rules that are enforced by social or governmental institutions and that aim to promote social stability and justice.[2] Laws can be made by groups or individuals, and can be passed through a legislature in the form of statutes; created by executive decrees or regulations; or established by judges in common law jurisdictions through precedent (or the doctrine of stare decisis). Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

The main purposes of law are to set standards, maintain order, resolve conflicts and protect liberties and rights. Laws can be broadly divided into public and private law, with the latter embracing legal systems that deal with business, property, intellectual property and civil rights. For example, banking law and financial regulation sets minimum standards to safeguard against bank crashes, while water law regulates companies that manage public utilities. Other examples of private law include the laws on patenting and copyright, company law and the rules on the sale of goods.

A major question in the study of law is whether it includes morals, reflecting theories such as Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian one that argues that “all legal authority derives from the sovereign power to command obedience, backed by threat of sanction”. Others, particularly in the natural school, argue that law reflects innately moral laws of nature that are unchangeable.