What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Law informs politics, economics, history and society in various ways and raises complex issues of equality, fairness and justice. It is the source of much scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis.

Legal scholars generally agree that there are four universal aspects of the concept of law: It sets standards; maintains order; resolves disputes; and protects individual liberty, property and rights. In addition, it must be publicized and stable, and its agents must be accessible and accountable.

The main areas of law are criminal and civil law. Criminal law deals with conduct that threatens social order and carries punishments such as imprisonment or fines. Civil law mainly involves the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals and organizations. In most countries, laws are formulated and codified by legislatures (legislators or parliaments). In some countries, such as the Republic of China, the law is based on the Constitution. In other countries, such as the United States, laws are formulated by judges.

In some countries, such as the French territories of New Caledonia and Tahiti, the law is based on a combination of legislative and judicial sources. Other legal systems are based on religious law, such as Islamic Sharia law. In some jurisdictions, such as in the United Kingdom, there is a mixture of common and civil law.

Among other things, the laws define many of the terms that are used in legal proceedings. These include:

discovery – Lawyers’ examination, before trial, of facts and documents in possession of their opponents to help prepare for a case. This may include depositions or other testimony by witnesses. A formal list of all the evidence is called a docket.

settlement – Parties to a lawsuit resolve their differences without going through a trial, usually by paying one another compensation. The amount of compensation is often determined by a judge who reviews the claims made by both sides. The judge’s decision is called a judgment.

arraignment – A court proceeding in which a person who has been charged with a crime is brought into the presence of a judge and told the charges against them. The defendant is then asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

en banc – Refers to court sessions with all judges participating, instead of a quorum. Sometimes judges at a higher court will sit en banc when they deem a case important enough to require the full attention of the court.

A career in law offers a wide variety of opportunities. There are jobs for lawyers, judges, paralegals, prosecutors and law enforcement officers. There are also careers for those who specialize in areas such as taxation, bankruptcy and corporate law. There are also law schools which provide training for those interested in becoming lawyers and judges. Some of these are government funded and offer scholarships to those who want to study law.