What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that governs behavior and is enforced by a controlling authority. Its precise definition is a matter of debate, with different approaches being taken to various questions of jurisprudence (the study of laws and legal systems). State-enforced law may be created by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, resulting in decrees or regulations; or by judges, who create case law through decisions on individual cases. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that provide alternatives to standard court litigation.

The main functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Many of these functions are interrelated. For example, a stable and democratic government is necessary for a society to function properly; however, democracy requires a free press that can report on the actions of authorities and prevent censorship. It is common for rebellions against existing political-legal structures to occur, and the desire for greater rights or representation in power is a fundamental human drive.

Some theories of law assert that the main purpose is to serve as a guide for people, informing them about their rights and duties, and providing them with an ordered structure. These are known as natural law theories and arose concurrently with ancient Greek philosophy. Others, such as Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian theory of law, argue that laws are commands, backed by the threat of sanctions from an authority figure, that reflect a community’s values.

Other theories of law are more speculative, examining the social and psychological factors that influence how law is perceived and enforced. In these theories, the nature of the human mind and the role of emotions play a large part in shaping what people perceive to be right or wrong. These theories are generally associated with the legal professions. In these fields, lawyers use their education to assist members of the public in resolving disputes and solving problems, interpreting and applying legislation, and advising on risk management and other business matters. The term lawyer is derived from the Latin word “advocatus”, meaning advocate, a person who stands up for another in a dispute or trial. Other prestigious titles for lawyers include barrister and doctor of law. Some of these distinctions are earned through special study or experience. In addition, some law students and practitioners take on extra-curricular activities to promote the cause of justice. For example, some law students and practicing attorneys write articles on legal issues that they are passionate about or take a position on controversial legislative changes. These are often published in legal journals or websites. In this way, they help shape the law, not just by interpreting and advocating for it, but also by connecting their own conscience to its deeper roots. The resulting works can be inspiring and insightful for everyone who reads them.