What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by the state which establishes standards for behaviour, maintains order, resolving disputes and protects people’s liberties and rights. People who break the law may face legal consequences. Lawyers work to enforce the law and provide advice about it.

A large number of laws govern different parts of society, such as criminal law which covers punishments for crimes, and administrative law which deals with how governments function. Other laws deal with specific activities, for example environmental protection laws or aviation law, which sets standards for the operation of aircraft.

Many laws are made at the federal level, but some are also made at local or regional levels. In the United States, federal laws are compiled and codified in the United States Code. The codes are arranged by subject matter and are published every six years. The Constitution prescribes the limits of federal law, which is supplemented by statutes enacted by Congress, treaties ratified by the Senate, regulations issued by the executive branch and case law decided by the courts.

At the state level, laws are a mixture of common law and statutes. Common law consists of a series of precedents which can be used to decide cases, and it is supplemented by statutes which are written specifically for particular situations. The legal system of a country can also be influenced by the tradition and culture of its people, for example, the legal systems of China or Japan are very different to those of the United States.

The philosophies of law are a complex area, and there are many different theories. Utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham argued that the law should be seen purely as a system of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, issued by a sovereign who has supreme power over the lives of his subjects. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that law should reflect natural and unchanging principles of justice.

There are many different kinds of law, covering everything from the rules that govern the use of public spaces to the rules that cover the responsibilities of medical practitioners. Some areas of law are regulated at the international level, such as human rights and environmental laws. Others are governed by the different national legal systems, for example, immigration and asylum law is framed by national civil aviation acts that are mostly aligned with the recommendations or mandatory standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Legal studies can lead to careers in the police force, the judiciary or the private sector, or it can be studied as an academic discipline. See also censorship; forensic science; international law; jurisprudence; and legal ethics.