What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules that governs an organisation or community. It can be state-enforced, as in a constitution or statute passed by a legislature or decreed by the executive; or privately enforced through contracts or agreements, such as an arbitration agreement or trust deed. It can also be a collection of custom and policy that has been recognised by judicial decision.

The law shapes politics, economics and history in many ways, and is an important mediator between people. It has four core functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The processes by which the law is adopted, administered, adjudicated and enforced are also important – they should be accessible, stable, fair, efficient and reflect the makeup of communities.

Modern laws cover almost every aspect of life – they can be general, such as traffic regulations or employment legislation; specific, such as the legal status of women, homosexuals or disabled people; or very detailed, such as criminal procedure codes that establish what evidence courts must consider when deciding a case. The law is split into three broad areas for convenience, although these are overlapping and intertwined:

Administrative law concerns the way in which government bodies, such as courts, governments and agencies act; criminal law concerns the way in which the state punishes people for crimes; and family law and property law concern marriage, divorce and inheritance. These laws are typically established through a legislative process and are publicly promulgated, while the standards that they must meet are laid down by a court ruling or the constitution.

The judicial system of a country is the basis of its law, and there are two broad systems: civil law and common law. In civil law jurisdictions, legislation enacted by the legislature is regarded as authoritative and binding. In contrast, judges in “common law” systems are bound by precedent – decisions of previous cases – and the resulting body of case law is known as the “doctrine of stare decisis”.

Judges must be impartial, independent and well educated; they must have sufficient resources to understand the law and the facts of a case and to reach a fair and just verdict. They must also take the time to make a proper assessment of each case and not rush to judgement. These principles are also recognised in a number of international treaties and conventions and form the cornerstones of global law. However, in practice they are often difficult to abide by and are regularly subject to criticism. The role of the judiciary is a matter of constant debate, from whether judges should be more politically active to how much influence they can have on the overall direction of law. There is also a great deal of debate about the size and composition of the judiciary, with calls for greater diversity. Some commentators suggest that the law should be interpreted according to the needs of the times. Others argue that the law should be based on universal moral and ethical principles.