What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and settle disputes. It is a field of study and a source of scholarly inquiry in philosophy, politics, history, economics and sociology. The precise nature of law is a topic of ongoing debate. Some scholars consider it to be an objective science, while others see it as an art or a human activity.

The practice of law is regulated by government and independent governing bodies in order to maintain professionalism. A modern lawyer achieves a distinct professional identity through specified legal procedures (such as passing a bar exam), and is constituted in office by legal forms of appointment (being admitted to the bar).

The law is an area of study that raises many complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice. It is also a major source of scholarly inquiry in jurisprudence, legal history, legal philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways, and serves as a mediator between the relations of individuals and groups.

There are various types of law, but the broadest division is between civil and criminal law. Civil law covers disputes between private parties, while crimes involve conduct that harms the state or public order. Laws can be enacted by legislative bodies, resulting in statutes; by the executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or by judges, resulting in case law. The latter is generally binding on all lower courts under the doctrine of stare decisis. Individuals may also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that adopt alternative dispute resolution to standard court litigation.

Jurisprudence is the academic study of the law, with special emphasis on its origins, development, methodology and philosophical foundations. It is also the branch of philosophy that studies the relationship between law and other aspects of human activity, including ethics and philosophy of science.

Law can serve a variety of purposes in a society, depending on the political system and culture in which it is established. For example, it can keep the peace, preserve social order, protect property and contract rights, protect minorities against majorities, or promote social change. Some laws are more effective at serving these purposes than others.

The prevailing legal system determines how a society organizes its justice. For example, it can be based on secular law, as in European countries; religious law, as in Islamic countries; or common law, as in the United States. Other factors that influence the formation of law include the economic and cultural context in which it is formed, the degree to which it is transparent, and the extent to which it respects fundamental individual freedoms. Legal systems are also shaped by the historical legacy of colonialism and imperialism, which often impose foreign laws on indigenous peoples. The resulting mixture of international, national and local law makes each nation’s legal tradition unique. However, some features are universal, such as a distinction between secular and religious law.

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