What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that governs the behavior of a community, society, or group. It is enforced by a controlling authority through penalties. It can be made by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent, as in common law systems. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts that are subject to judicial enforcement. Law embodies the story of a nation’s development over centuries and cannot be reduced to a simple syllogism. It is influenced by felt necessities, prevalent moral and political theories, avowed or unconscious prejudices, and many other factors.

The laws of a country can be divided into two broad categories: criminal law and civil law. The former addresses conduct that can be construed as an offense against the public or society at large, such as murder, theft, or drunk driving; the latter relates to injury to private parties, such as libel or slander, breach of contract, or property damage. Various sub-categories exist within both types, such as antitrust and labor law. The law can be further broken down into specific areas such as taxation and social security law.

Most countries have a mix of legal systems. For example, the United States has a common law system in which the law is derived from court decisions rather than through legislative statutes. This method of determining the law is sometimes referred to as “stare decisis” (Latin for “to stand by decisions”). In contrast, Japan has a civil law system in which courts follow a code that specifically sets out the law for specific situations.

One area of debate over the nature of law is whether it includes an element of morality. For example, utilitarians such as John Austin argued that the law consists of commandments, backed by sanctions from a sovereign, to which people have a habit of obedience. Others, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, argued that the law reflects a fundamental and unchanging set of moral principles.

A major function of the law is to prevent discrimination in employment and other fields. Generally, it is illegal for an employer to make decisions that negatively affect a person on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), disability, or genetic information.

The law is enforced by the police, courts, and other government agencies. The police are trained to investigate crimes and gather evidence in order to bring prosecutions. The courts are responsible for determining whether the defendant committed the crime, and if so, whose rights were violated and how much punishment should be imposed. The judge in a case may give instructions to the jury on how to interpret the law, and what evidence the court has found to be valid and relevant. The clerk of the court is a specialist in managing cases and ensuring that all aspects of the case are handled correctly and efficiently.