What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with criminal activities, business agreements and social relationships. It can also be used to refer to the people who work within this system. The precise definition of the term law is a matter of longstanding debate, but it has generally been described as a set of social or governmental institutions that regulate behavior and enforce rights, with its precise nature as a science or art being the subject of many different theories.

Legal systems vary significantly from nation to nation, with some failing to achieve the principal purposes of law (keeping peace and maintaining order; preserving individual liberties against majorities; resolving disputes; and promoting social change). In many cases, whether a particular legal system achieves its objectives depends on which groups have power over the creation and enforcement of the laws. An authoritarian government may keep the peace but oppress minorities; a democracy maintains the status quo but sometimes fails to provide the protections expected under the rule of law; and the same goes for a constitutional monarchy.

Some philosophers have viewed law as something that exists in the natural world, with others seeing it as man’s attempt to organize human society. Blackstone and Thomas Aquinas, for example, both held that there are four principal aspects of the law: natural law, positive law, constitutional law, and canon law. In addition, Blackstone and Aquinas distinguished between rights in personam, which are rights that relate to specific individuals, and rights in rem, which are rights that apply to property or other things, such as contracts, trusts, and some types of torts.

There are two primary mechanisms by which valid legal rights may be created or detracted from: acts of law, which are legal rules or judicial decisions that directly bestow such rights; and the legal recognition of actions which inherently confer rights, such as gifts, forfeitures, consent, appointment, last wills and testaments, and contracts (Fitzgerald [Salmond] 1966: 333-341; Paton 1972: 319-320 & 433-485). Rights in rem tend to appear more frequently in the law of obligations and property law than in the law of torts.

The broadest sense of the term law refers to the body of laws enacted by a country or region, but more generally it can be used to refer to any system of principles and practices recognized as binding by some authority or group of people. It can include any written or unwritten collection of custom and policies that has the force of law, including a constitution or charter, a statute, or a judgment or decree of a court of law. The term law can also be applied to the discipline and profession that studies these principles, which is known as jurisprudence.