What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules a society or government develops in order to govern behavior and deal with things like crime, business agreements, and social relationships. These laws are enforced by a controlling authority through penalties if they are broken. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many different ways. It also serves as a mediator of relations between people.

Different countries have different law systems. The U.S., for example, employs a common law system where the laws are derived from judicial decisions in cases that come before the courts. This system is based on the “doctrine of precedent” wherein decisions made in one case are binding on lower courts that are faced with similar situations. Some countries, such as Japan, employ a civil law system where the laws are codified in codes that specify the rules judges must follow in making a decision.

Aside from the different types of legal processes, laws vary in how they are regulated and enforced by the state. Some countries have a written constitution that defines the limits of governmental power and sets out certain civil liberties and rights for all citizens regardless of their background or social status. Other countries have more flexible legal systems that are largely determined by custom and practice and by the relationships between citizens, as well as the different communities they live in.

Among the most important functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberty and rights. A key question is whether or not these laws are applied evenly and fairly to all members of a society. The answer to this depends on whether or not people face consequences for breaking the laws no matter their wealth or social status, and on whether there are mechanisms in place that prevent abuses of power.

Contract law is a form of law that regulates the exchange of goods and services, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law identifies people’s rights and obligations toward their tangible property, such as land or buildings, as well as intangible property such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Criminal law punishes those who commit crimes, such as robbery and murder. Tort law helps people make claims for compensation when they are wronged, such as when someone is harmed by a drunk driver or when their property is damaged by another person’s careless actions.

In religious societies, the law is often a part of a religion’s tenets and is derived from the teachings of the prophet. This type of law is known as Sharia or Fiqh, and it typically incorporates further human elaboration through interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent. Other religious societies rely on further elaboration of the Bible, particularly the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, for their law.