What is Law?


Law is a system of rules that societies or governments develop to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. The precise definition of the term is a matter of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.

It is also important to recognize that a nation’s laws reflect its political landscape and the power that people or groups hold over the country. As a result, there are many ways that the law can differ between nations, although some of the basic principles are universal. These include that the laws are clear, publicly available and stable, that they provide equal protection of property and contract rights to all citizens and that the processes by which they are adopted, administered, adjudicated and enforced are accessible and equitable.

The earliest legal philosopher to write on the subject of law was Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), whose Commentaries on the Laws of England were a major influence in America during our early history. Blackstone argued that there are two sources of law: the law of nature and the law revealed in Scripture. If a human law contradicts God’s general will as expressed in Scripture, he said, it is invalid.

In addition to these secular sources of law, there are religious laws. These are often based on religious texts, such as the Bible, the Quran and the Talmud. Depending on the country, these can form separate legal systems or be combined with civil or common law. For example, some countries have religious courts that exclusively hear certain cases, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, for followers of specific religions.

A final source of law is customary law, which is set by tribal or village elders. This is particularly common in areas where a formal justice system has been weakened or destroyed by war or conflict. In these circumstances, tribal or village elders frequently serve as judges and arbitrators. They may also establish and administer land law, for example, by regulating the amount of water a farmer can draw from a river.

Law also covers many specific subjects, such as aviation law; bankruptcy law; carriage of goods; constitutional law; family law; criminal law; employment law; medical jurisprudence; maritime law; property law; and tort law. See articles on each of these subjects for more details. The law is also a fundamental part of our political and military systems. Articles on those topics can be found under the subjects of censorship; civil rights; criminal justice; and democracy and government.