What Is Law?


Law is the body of rules that governs a society. It shapes politics, economics, history and culture in many ways. Law may be explicit or implicit and can be written or unwritten. Its development and enforcement often pose difficult problems of equity, fairness and justice. It is the basis for much scholarly inquiry in legal history, philosophy and sociology.

The most fundamental law is a constitution, usually written. It establishes the limits of government power and codifies a number of human rights. It may also impose duties and responsibilities on citizens. It is the foundation for other laws, rules and regulations that regulate commerce, property and social behaviour.

The law is a vital component of the economy, regulating such activities as contracts, labour, insurance and banking. It also establishes the basis for justice and fairness through its definition of criminal and civil offences. It is the foundation for many societal structures, such as family and education, and serves as a mediator in relations between people and between nations.

Legal systems vary widely from country to country, reflecting the many influences that shape a nation’s history and culture. Some are based on the Roman legal tradition, while others, such as those of India, Malaysia and Singapore, have been influenced by the British common law system. Still others have retained the religious influence of Islamic and Hindu law, though these systems have been reshaped by western-based legal traditions.

There are three basic areas of law, although many topics intertwine and overlap. Contract law concerns the laws that govern agreements to exchange goods and services, and it covers everything from selling a car to signing a mortgage. Criminal law addresses violations of public order and morality. Property law defines the rights and duties toward tangible property, such as land and buildings, as well as intangible assets like stock options and computer data. The law of evidence determines which materials are admissible in court to build a case.

The rule of law requires that all government as well as private actors are accountable to the legal system. It requires that laws be clear, publicised and stable and that they are applied evenly. It requires that judges and other legal officials be competent, ethical and independent, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve. It also requires that those who enforce the law, investigate crimes and adjudicate cases be accessible to all citizens.

The judicial branch of government is responsible for the administration of the law and deciding lawsuits. Judges must be qualified by meeting a certain standard, which is typically demonstrated by a professional legal degree (e.g. a Bachelor of Laws or Juris Doctor). Most countries have a legal system with a chief judge who oversees the administration of the court and decides cases. Some courts have an appellate level that can review decisions, while other courts are bound by the decisions of higher levels of court, which are called “binding precedents”. Some courts hold sessions with the full bench of judges – this is referred to as sitting en banc.