What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules a particular place or community recognizes as regulating its members’ actions. It is enforced by means of a judiciary that consists of judges and sometimes magistrates who resolve people’s disputes, decide whether those charged with crimes are guilty or not and punish them if appropriate. People also use the term to refer to legal professions that deal with advising about the law, representing people in court and so forth. In most places the laws are written in a book called a statute or code. Some people study law in college and university. This can lead to a career as a lawyer or judge.

In most countries, the law is a set of decisions made by a body called the legislative branch that sets out what is permitted and forbidden. The executive branch, in turn, applies these laws and may add to or remove them, depending on what is needed. Many countries have a parliamentary system in which the legislature is elected by citizens and the executive branch is chosen by the president, prime minister or other leaders from the governing party.

Throughout history, different ideas about what is law have emerged from the culture, religion and philosophy of the societies that have developed them. These ideas often influence people’s daily activities, but they are not universally applied. For example, a rule of conduct sanctioned by conscience or concepts of natural justice can be a law for some people but not for others.

Some laws are very complex, such as those dealing with property, labour and criminal law. Other laws are much simpler, such as contracts and insurance law. Some laws are based on the history of the country or region, such as common law or civil law. Others are based on a set of principles enshrined in documents such as the constitution, constitutions or statutes.

The term law can also be used to describe specific areas of law such as medical, employment, aviation or corporate law. Medical law, for example, covers such topics as physician-patient privilege, medical confidentiality and the handling of patient information by health professionals. Employment law, in turn, deals with the rights of employers, workers and trade unions and includes such matters as pay, working conditions, safety and freedom to strike. Other examples include the law of the land, which concerns the ownership of land and buildings (real property) and personal possessions (personal property). The law of evidence involves which materials can be used in courts to build cases. Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking about the extension of the law into all aspects of life, and modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over individuals raise questions about accountability that Montesquieu or Locke could not have foreseen. For further reading see law, theory of; judicial process; crime and punishment; and government, power of.