What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules imposed by society to control behavior, enforce rights and punish wrongdoers. It may be enacted by group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges, resulting in case law. Private individuals may also create legal contracts to establish agreements with one another. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves a number of purposes.

Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Some philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, argue that laws serve four principal purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Others, such as Hans Kelsen, propose the ‘pure theory of law’, which states that it does not seek to describe what must occur but defines rules that individuals have to abide by.

Different philosophies of law have influenced modern society in many ways. Utilitarian law focuses on the practical aspects of the law, while natural law theory advocates that the law is based on morals. The concept of the rule of law has become increasingly important in recent decades, as globalization and increasing powers of government challenge notions of sovereignty and citizen participation.

There are numerous branches of law, covering a wide variety of topics. Employment law, for example, encompasses the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union and includes regulation of collective bargaining and the right to strike. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible assets, such as land and buildings, and money and personal possessions, including bank accounts and shares of stock. Contract law regulates the formation of agreements to exchange goods or services and involves complex areas such as agency, insurance, bills of exchange and insolvency and bankruptcy law. Family law concerns marriage and divorce proceedings and child custody and rights. International law and biolaw concern the intersection of law with other disciplines, such as the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences.