What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules and principles enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. It may be established by a collective legislature resulting in statutes, or by the executive through decrees and regulations, or derived from judicial decisions (as in common law systems). Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts.

While laws can be imposed by government, they are often created through voluntary agreements between people and businesses. These may include commercial contracts, property agreements or employment agreements. People can also make law for themselves through acts of conscience and concepts of natural justice. Laws can be interpreted through different lenses, such as rationalism (rationality applied to politics), pragmatism (pragmatic application of the principle that ‘whatever is right is good’) or religion (the will of a god).

The subject of law extends into all areas of human life. It may be broken down into three broad categories, though they overlap: criminal law covers offences such as murder and theft; civil law covers disputes between citizens (including divorce proceedings) and between citizens and businesses; and administrative law relates to the management of services and utilities such as water, energy and transport.

A legal system’s laws may be influenced by its constitution, written or unwritten, which establishes its fundamental principles and rights. It may also be influenced by history, such as Roman law and its detailed codes, or by the legacy of medieval legal scholarship. For example, Blackstone’s ideas were influential on judges who created a body of common law.

It is important to note that there are no means for empirical verification of the content of law. While it is possible to verify that the laws of physics are objective, there is no way of knowing whether any given set of legal rules should comprise precepts about goodness and evil, social science or a notion of justice.

The development of law reflects the growth of organised societies, the need to control economic activity and protect the wellbeing of people. It is an area of study which has always been dominated by controversy. There are many debates over how to define law, how it should be governed and what its purpose is.

The study of law can be a fascinating and rewarding experience. However, students should be aware of the complexities involved in this field. There is a vast amount of information to be absorbed and the scope for study can be very wide-ranging, covering such areas as labour law (which encompasses tripartite industrial relations between workers, employers and trade unions); family law (including the rights of children) and forensic science, which involves how evidence is collected. It is vital that students consider how they will approach the subject and decide what type of career path they want to follow. This will help them to determine whether a legal career is for them. It is recommended that students take part in a law placement during their studies, to get an idea of what the profession is like and what it involves.

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