What is Law?

Law is a set of rules and regulations that govern people’s actions, including property, contracts, personal safety, civil rights and criminal justice. These laws are enforced through a controlling authority which ensures that private and public actors are accountable. Law is a source of great scholarly interest, particularly in the fields of legal history, philosophy and economic analysis.

There are many areas of law and these are often grouped into three categories for convenience:

Contract law concerns the enforceable agreements between people, such as a sale or lease of land. Property law deals with the ownership and possession of fixed, movable and intangible assets like cars, houses and jewellery. It also includes ownership of intellectual property, such as patents, trademarks and copyrights. Administrative law relates to the management of services and utilities by governments or other statutory bodies. The laws governing these are regulated, and in many countries this includes the management of water, energy or telecommunications. Criminal law concerns the behaviour of citizens which is deemed to be harmful or illegal, and which can result in punishment for example imprisonment or a fine. Civil law is the resolving of disputes between citizens and covers such issues as a citizen’s right to a fair trial and hearing.

These subject areas are all interrelated and many overlap. For instance, labour law encompasses the tripartite relationship between employer, worker and trade union, whilst family law covers marriage, divorce proceedings and children’s rights to parents and grandparents. Employment law also covers workers’ rights to health and safety, a minimum wage, or collective bargaining. Administrative law relates to the rules governing how courts and tribunals must follow when they are adjudicating disputes between citizens or businesses, and evidence law covers which materials will be allowed as court cases are built up.

From a methodological point of view, law is distinct from empirical science (like gravity or the law of supply and demand) and social sciences (such as political economy). Law has normative as well as descriptive characteristics and this gives it a unique place in human thought.

The law influences politics, economics and society in many ways. For instance, it is a major influence on the development of political systems and ideologies, and on the structure and form of government and democracy. It is also a significant issue in economics, as it shapes the production and distribution of goods and services. It also plays a role in education, as it affects the way pupils and students are taught. In religion, the law takes the form of religious precepts such as the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Shariah, and canon law in some church communities.