What Is Law?

Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Its principal role is to define and govern the rights of individuals, groups and societies. A broad definition of law includes rules that protect people from each other and from the government, as well as rules governing property and contract and ensuring fairness in a given situation. Law also encompasses the processes by which laws are made, administered and enforced.

Laws are created, enforced and applied by a variety of institutions. These include legislatures, courts, tribunals and ombudsmen. A general distinction is drawn between civil law jurisdictions, in which codes spell out what judges must do to decide cases, and common law systems, where judge-made precedent is a major source of law.

Civil and criminal procedure concern the rules that judges must follow as trials and appeals proceed. Evidence law involves which materials are admissible in court to build a case. The study of contracts is called commercial law and includes the law of agency, insurance law, bills of exchange, insolvency and bankruptcy law and sales law. Property law covers real property (land) and personal property (such as cars, computers and jewelry). Intellectual property, company law and trust law are part of the wider field of business law.

Criminal law deals with offenses against the state, ranging from murder to fraud and forgery. Tort law covers harms to people or their possessions, such as car accidents or defamation of character. Labor law focuses on the relationship between worker, employer and trade unions and relates to such issues as wage and hour laws, workers’ compensation, workplace safety and unions. Environmental and administrative law are both branches of public law that deal with the use of natural resources and the conduct of businesses in a specific region or community.

Law is generally understood to be distinct from religion, even though there are a number of religious legal systems in the world. Modern lawyers acquire a distinct professional identity by following specified procedures, typically passing a qualifying examination and becoming a member of a bar association or law society. They may also earn higher academic degrees (a Master of Legal Studies, a Bachelor of Laws or Juris Doctor degree) before beginning practice. It is illegal to practice law without such credentials in most countries. The word lawyer derives from the Latin, “advocatus” meaning a person who defends or advocates a cause before a court of law. The biblical commandment teaches that a judge should not show favoritism in deciding cases. This concept of impartiality is central to the rule of law. It is a fundamental principle that has been challenged and tested in a variety of cultures and circumstances. The rule of law requires that laws are clear, publicly known and stable and that they are applied equally to all. The principles that support the rule of law also require that the administration and enforcement of the law be accessible, fair and efficient.