The Basics of Law


Law is a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with things like crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It can also refer to the profession of lawyers and judges, who are all involved in the process of interpreting the law, enforcing it, and punishing those who break it.

The law serves a variety of purposes, four of which are most important: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberty and rights. Many different types of law exist, ranging from the governing principles in a religion to the customary practices in a community, to the legal documents that govern a nation or company. The legal system can be divided into branches, such as contract law, criminal law, and property law, that regulate specific types of activities or relationships.

Contract law, for example, defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property, such as land or buildings, as well as intangible property, such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Criminal law establishes a standard set of punishments for certain crimes, such as murder or robbery. Property law establishes people’s rights and duties toward their money and other possessions, and property laws can be very complex.

Often, laws are established by the government, such as a country’s parliament or legislature. In the United States, for instance, Congress—which consists of the House of Representatives and Senate—is the legislative branch of the Federal Government. Whenever a new law is created, it begins as a bill that is introduced in either chamber by a senator or a member of the House of Representatives. Then, it goes through a process of research, discussion, changes, and voting before being passed or rejected.

Another type of law is natural law, which is the innate principles that dictate the ways that a human being should act. The concept of natural law is based on the Bible and a philosopher called Sir William Blackstone, whose commentary on the laws of England were extremely influential in America’s founding. Essentially, natural law dictates that a person should do the right thing in most situations.

In a society, laws are developed to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect the rights of minorities against majorities, and provide for orderly social change. Some laws are more effective at fulfilling these functions than others, however. A government ruled by authoritarian principles, for example, may keep the peace but oppress minorities and political opponents. In contrast, a government that follows rule of law principles is more likely to promote peace and stability while protecting the freedoms of its citizens. The principle of rule of law is an essential part of the UN’s humanitarian and development agendas. It involves respect for the norms of international law, including on the use of force, and recognition of the primary responsibility of States to protect their populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. It also includes a commitment to the universal right to a safe and secure environment.