What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that social or governmental institutions create and enforce to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways.

The principal purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The law serves these goals best when it is clear, publicized, stable, and applied evenly. Governments and private actors must obey the law; when they do not, they are subject to legal sanctions. Laws must also be interpreted and enforced by representatives and neutrals who are accessible, competent, ethical, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

In the United States, there are numerous branches of law. Civil law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (land, buildings and other real estate) as well as intangible property (like money, stocks and bonds). Criminal law describes the punishments for various crimes, such as murder and robbery. Family law defines the rights and duties of spouses, children and other relatives.

A person who studies laws and systems of law is called a lawyer, judge or other legal professional. A career in law is growing increasingly popular with young people. Other areas of law include intellectual property, which governs inventions and copyrighted works; and administrative law, which regulates the activities of government agencies. In addition to regulating the activities of businesses, governments and individuals, the law provides a mechanism for settling conflicts.

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