What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of debate, and it has been variously described as a science, an art, or a set of principles rooted in conscience, natural justice, or the will of God.

Law governs many aspects of people’s daily lives, and is divided into numerous sub-fields. For example, contract law regulates agreements between private individuals, including those concerning employment, property or money; criminal law provides punishment for committing crimes such as murder or fraud; and civil rights legislation ensures the freedoms enjoyed by citizens such as freedom of speech and religion.

A key role of law is to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, and protect the interests of minorities against majorities. The nature of this role varies from nation to nation, as do the means by which legal authority is exercised. For instance, an authoritarian government may successfully keep the peace and maintain order but might also oppress minorities and limit democratic change. Conversely, a democracy can easily create new laws to address changing social needs and protect the interests of its citizens.

The sources of law vary as well. It can be created by group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges through precedent, usually in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

As with any field of knowledge, the development of law has been shaped by a variety of factors, including the felt necessities of the time, prevalent moral and political theories, and intuitions of public policy, whether avowed or unconscious. While the development of law has not been an entirely rational process, it can be said that it is a normative science.

One of the most significant changes to law has been the increasing use of e-commerce and electronic communications. This has increased the speed and ease of transferring information and changing legal precedents. It has also made the process of interpreting the law increasingly automated and streamlined, and has reduced the need for manual processing by clerks in courts.

While the development of law has been largely an evolutionary process, recent trends have been to seek more precise definitions of what constitutes law. This has been driven by a desire to create more efficient administrative processes and to provide a clearer understanding of how laws are applied in the real world. This is reflected in the growing emphasis on evidence and transparency in legal procedures. It has also been influenced by new challenges, such as cyberlaw and the globalisation of legal practice. This has prompted some scholars to reshape thinking on the extent of law’s reach. For example, Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking on the relationship between law and power. As a result, modern states often have powers and resources that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu never envisaged.