What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, with its precise definition a matter of longstanding debate. Laws, or statutory laws, are created by legislatures in the form of statutes and decrees, or by executive authorities as regulations or orders. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts that impose obligations or sanction if broken.

The principal functions of law are setting standards, governing behaviour, maintaining order and resolving disputes. The extent to which these functions are fulfilled depends on the type of political system and the quality of government. In unstable or authoritarian societies, the principal function of law is often not fulfilled and people find themselves at the mercy of tyrants.

A key question is the extent to which law incorporates morality. Bentham’s utilitarian theories dominated Western thought for most of the 19th century, but later thinkers like Rousseau and John Austin argued that laws should reflect a more general code of morality. The notion of natural law has re-entered philosophical discourse through the work of Thomas Aquinas and other medievalists.

Besides laws, there are also rules that govern specific types of activity or property. Banking law covers a range of issues, from the amount of capital banks must hold to their rules about best practice in investing. Employment law encompasses tripartite relationships between workers, employers and trade unions, as well as individual employee rights. Criminal law covers the prosecution of crimes, including the right to a fair trial and hearing. Civil litigation involves disputes between private parties, and tort law covers harms to persons or their property, whether through an automobile accident or defamation of character.

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