What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to control behavior. It may be imposed by force, resulting in criminal laws or civil rights, or it may be voluntarily accepted, resulting in contracts and other legal agreements. It may be codified by a legislature, resulting in statutes, or it may develop through judicial decisions, leading to case law and the “doctrine of precedent.”

Whether state-enforced or self-imposed, a society’s law influences every aspect of its existence. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It is also a form of self-preservation, ensuring that individuals or groups do not harm each other. It is a discipline that is unique in several ways compared to other fields and sciences.

From a methodological viewpoint, it is difficult to compare the study of law with empirical science (such as the law of gravity) or even social science (such as laws of cause and effect). It lacks the simplicity of physical principles and causal statements, but it also does not have the complex theories found in other disciplines such as ethics or philosophy.

The law can be divided into three broad categories for convenience, though the subjects that constitute it are incredibly diverse. Labour law, for example, includes the regulation of the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union. It encompasses collective bargaining, the right to strike and individual employment rights such as job security or a minimum wage. Criminal law involves the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial and property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property, such as their house or car. It is complemented by administrative law, which deals with government regulations and procedures, and evidence law, which determines which materials are admissible in court.

Modern law has expanded far beyond its classical limits, and its development has been influenced by a range of social factors that Max Weber or Montesquieu could not have foreseen. Its ramifications for the extension of state power pose particular challenges that the likes of Locke and Marx never considered. This expansion of the sphere of law makes it difficult to assess its legitimacy in the light of principles such as accountability, which are fundamental to democracy and human rights. However, the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court and other international courts is continually reshaping thinking about this subject. In addition, the new responsibilities of the military and policing have shifted the focus to questions about the nature of law itself.