What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that governs human relationships and activities. It is the subject of intense academic inquiry and scholarly debate, encompassing disciplines as diverse as philosophy, history, sociology, economics and politics. In addition to regulating people’s behaviour, law often functions as a proxy for values and priorities. Thus, it may serve such purposes as preserving the peace, maintaining social stability and justice, protecting minorities against majorities and facilitating orderly social change. The precise definition of law remains a matter of longstanding debate.

Law includes a wide range of subjects, from criminal and civil laws to administrative and environmental laws. Some laws are very broad, such as a country’s constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Others are more specific, such as a company’s internal code of ethics or the terms and conditions on an airline ticket. Some laws are based on traditional custom and practice, while others are derived from modern legal systems such as the Common Law of England and Wales or the French civil code. In addition, many countries that were once colonized by continental European nations have retained aspects of their civil law traditions.

Modern law varies widely, reflecting the diversity of cultural, historical and political contexts from which it arises. Its complexity derives from its normative character, namely that it prescribes how people ought to behave, rather than simply describing the factual consequences of certain events (such as the law of gravity). It also differs from empirical science and even from social science in that there are no means available to verify whether or not an authoritative statement about the law is true.

Legal subjects include a variety of specialties, including administrative law, banking and financial law, competition law, consumer law, property law, space law and tax law. Administration law consists of regulations concerning such things as public services and utilities, such as water, electricity or air travel. It may also cover business-to-business relationships, such as contracts or trade agreements. Banking and financial law involves regulations on the minimum amount of capital banks must hold, or directives about best practice for investment.

Competition law is an evolving area of the law that traces its roots to Roman decrees against price fixing and the English restraint of trade doctrine at the turn of the 20th century. It is now applied against such practices as price-fixing, abuse of dominant market positions and exclusive dealings.

Those who practice law are called lawyers, solicitors or barristers. In modern jurisdictions, they achieve distinct professional identity through formal procedures and have a recognised degree (such as a Bachelor of Laws or a Juris Doctor). They are usually also required to be members of an independent disciplinary body that oversees their ethical conduct. The rule of law is a set of universal principles that state that the Government and private entities are accountable to laws that are clear, publicised, stable and applied evenly. They also ensure that the processes by which the law is made and enforced are transparent and accessible.