What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules enacted and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate human conduct. This system can be state-enforced, resulting in statutes and regulations, or self-enforcing through the judicial process of precedent (in common law jurisdictions). It can also be private, as in the case of contractual agreements between individuals.

A peculiarity of the law is its normative character, in which it establishes what people ought or should not do under certain circumstances. This distinguishes it from empirical science (like the law of gravity) or even social science (such as the law of demand and supply in economics).

Because the law establishes what one should do, it also imposes a duty on people to obey it. This is the basis of a legal system that ensures accountability in both the public and private sectors. It ensures that government actions are transparent and accountable, that private actors respect human rights and property rights and the environment, and that people have access to justice.

The most important feature of the law is its central role in a democracy. It provides the framework for ensuring fairness and stability in political life by separating power between the individual and the state, guaranteeing the rights of minorities and the poor, and providing a safe and secure environment. It also serves as a moral standard and guides decisions on such issues as property, contract, and criminal behavior.

Legal systems vary by country, with some following English common law and others using a civil law tradition based on Roman law, canon law, and local custom. Civil law, which is used by about 60% of the world’s population, emphasizes freedom to contract and ownership of property. It is a largely legislative system with rules systematically organized into codes, making it easy to understand and apply by judges and citizens alike. It is also flexible, with a clear expression of rights and duties and an ability to adjust to changing needs through judicial interpretation and creative jurisprudence.

Among the most significant challenges to the law are corruption, the influx of migrants into states that have not established asylum procedures, and globalization of trade, finance, and information technology. In these areas, the law must balance the protection of the environment with the need for a competitive economy. In addition, legal professions must be aware of cultural and ethical differences in other nations. This requires a broad international perspective and the development of multilateral international treaties and organizations to facilitate mutual understanding.