What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules and standards that shapes politics, economics and history in various ways and acts as mediator of relations between people. Its four principal functions are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. It is an extremely complex area and people have very different ideas about what it is, leading to a wide range of books and debates about the topic.

A common theme in these is the need to have a rule of law that is reasonably stable, so people can plan and coordinate their actions over time and avoid being caught by surprises. This need is especially important in a complex society, such as a modern industrial democracy.

Another major theme is the need for a democratic legal system that has good separation of powers and allows citizens to participate in decision making. This requires that laws are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. It also requires that government agencies are accountable to the law and not simply a bureaucracy. In addition, this needs to be done in a way that respects international human rights norms and standards.

This is a vast area of study, covering everything from ancient Egyptian and Greek law to the development of modern criminal law, contract law, constitutional law, property law and the law of the sea. There are also specialised areas such as family law, company law and employment law. A wide variety of societal concerns are addressed by law, including social restrictions such as censorship, crime and police, and the military and war.

There is also a great deal of debate about the nature of law and whether it should be based on a written constitution or simply on the traditions and customs of the community. A healthy exchange of views about this is essential to the intellectual growth and advancement of the law.

A related question is the extent to which the law should be coercive, requiring people to obey it. This is an important issue as it can be necessary for a society to function, but there are limits on this that should be recognised. Some controversial issues include the use of military and policing power for political ends, and whether judges should be able to apply their own moral values and judgment when interpreting law. Others relate to the scope of a person’s freedom, such as whether they should be allowed to express their own beliefs or not. The legal profession is notorious for its own special vocabulary: for example,’she practises law’ means that she works as a lawyer. Other terms of respect include Esquire, which is used to indicate a barrister (a member of the legal profession), and Doctor of Law, which indicates that a person has a PhD in law.