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. Law informs the lives of individuals and societies in many ways, regulating everything from commercial transactions to relationships between spouses or between friends. It is a complex and diverse field, which has been described as both a science and an art.

The most basic purpose of law is to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, and protect individual rights, although it can serve other functions as well. For example, it may also preserve the economic status quo by protecting businesses from competitors, or it might protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice, or provide an orderly process for societal change (e.g., a democracy). The degree to which it serves these purposes, however, can vary widely from country to country, depending on the power structure of the state and its institutions.

In most societies, the most powerful person or group determines the laws and is responsible for enforcing them. This type of state is known as an authoritarian regime. In contrast, a democratic state strives to limit the power of its leaders and provides for regular elections. It also ensures that the law is clear and publicly published, that it applies evenly, and that human rights are protected.

A legal system generally contains a mix of both criminal and civil law, with the majority of cases heard in the former. The distinction between these two types of law is somewhat blurred, and some countries have hybrid systems that combine both civil and criminal laws within the same courtroom.

Civil law typically describes lawsuits involving non-criminal claims such as breach of contract, divorce, and property disputes. Criminal law, on the other hand, involves punishment for crimes and violations of public morality. A legal system may also contain a body of customary law, which relates to tribal or village customs.

A lawyer’s brief is a written document submitted to the judge(s) in a case that explains why that lawyer thinks his or her client should win the case. The brief is sometimes called a “memorandum of points and authorities.”

A legal claim, privilege, or power is justified when it is grounded in other legal norms. For example, the norm that a person has a right to his or her good name is justified by the more general norm that every person has a right to their personal integrity. In some jurisdictions, these claims or privileges are active while in others, they are passive, resulting in Hohfeldian positions of entitlements and immunities: rights that are actively enjoyed passively determine what the rights-holders may do (privilege-rights) or can do (power-rights). Some rights are binding precedents, which must be followed by courts without a compelling reason or significant differences in facts and issues. Other rights are not considered binding precedents and can be modified or discarded as appropriate.