What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules a society or government develops to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It also covers the administration of justice and the rules that courts must follow as they adjudicate cases. The law may be based on a constitution or tacitly encoded in a tradition. It is also subject to change in response to changing circumstances or to the evolving ideas of scholars and judges. It is a system of norms rather than facts, and it is more about how things ought to be than about what actually happens.

The law may be created and enforced by a collective legislature resulting in statutes, or by the executive through decrees and regulations or through the judiciary via case law. It can be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and it may be subject to change through constitutional amendments. It can be derived from the customary practices of a community, such as family or business law, or it can be based on the principles of justice that have evolved over time, as in common law, which is founded on judge-made precedent.

Unlike most other sciences and disciplines, the law has a normative character. It tells us how things ought to be, and it defines rights and duties. It also reflects the beliefs and values of the society that creates it. As such, law cannot be compared to empirical science (such as gravity) or even to social science.

There are many different types of law, and the areas covered by the law are extremely broad. Some examples are criminal law, which deals with homicide and other crimes; labour law, which covers the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union; and space law, which addresses human activities in earth orbit and outer space. Other areas include tax law, which sets minimum standards for the amount of capital banks must have and financial regulation; bankruptcy law; and telecommunications law, which regulates the use of telecommunications systems and equipment.

Lawmaking processes are highly complex and legislative bodies often work from a variety of sources. Legislators receive proposals from colleagues, they copy legislation that has been successful elsewhere, and they may try to find solutions to specific problems. For example, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws produces model laws for legislatures to consider.

Once a bill has been passed by a legislature, it is usually sent to a chief judge who oversees its administration. The court clerk, who is usually a deputy to the chief judge, works with the judges in managing the flow of cases through the court and maintaining court records. The chief judge decides cases, and his or her choice of which judge to assign to a particular case is often made on the basis of seniority. A judge is required to give impartial justice and avoid arbitrary and dishonest opinions; the law provides a framework of fixed principles that help to achieve this.