What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules and regulations that create a framework to ensure a peaceful society. These rules can be enforced by a controlling authority through sanctions. Law encompasses both public and private responsibilities. It also includes a range of professional activities, including the study of laws, advising people on their rights, representing them in court and imposing punishments. The precise definition of law is a matter of considerable debate.

The purposes of law include the maintenance of peace, preservation of the status quo, respect for individual rights, social justice, and the enabling of orderly social change. Different legal systems serve these purposes in different ways. For example, the legal system of an authoritarian regime may serve to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it will also oppress minorities and prevent social change. The legal system of a democratic regime will serve these same purposes but will allow for social change and respect the rights of individuals.

Laws can be created by a group legislature or a single legislator, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent, which is the case in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

There are a number of specialised areas of law. These include banking and financial regulation, competition law (similar to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade law) and the law of a number of specific fields, such as air and maritime transport law, insurance law and utility regulation (the legal rules governing companies who manage the provision of energy, gas, telecomms and water services).

Many countries have different law traditions. The United States, for example, employs a common law system which is based on the decisions of judges in cases that have been brought to trial and the compilation of these decisions into a body of case law. Other countries, such as Japan, have civil law systems which are based on written codes that explicitly specify the rules that judges must follow when making a decision.

There are also differences in the way that law is interpreted by different cultures. This is particularly apparent when it comes to religion. For instance, the Jewish legal tradition reflects a secular and utilitarian philosophy, while the Hindu legal tradition is influenced by a religious ideology. There are also significant variations in the way that law is interpreted between countries in the European Union, as a result of the existence of a common currency. This has led to some disputes over the application of EU laws within member states. However, there is a growing trend towards the convergence of EU law. This is a result of increased awareness of the importance of legal uniformity and the need to avoid a patchwork of different national laws. This is being encouraged by the European Parliament, which is setting out to achieve a uniform European civil code.