What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules developed by a society to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It consists of written and unwritten customs, practices and norms that are enforced by a controlling authority. There are four principal functions of Law: setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

A law can be a principle based on the predictable consequences of an action: the law of supply and demand; a rule that obligates everyone in an organized jural community to obey a certain standard: the rule of civility; or a body of rules formulated by a legislative assembly, with the approval of the executive branch, that governs an entire nation: the Constitution of the United States. Law also includes the set of rules imposed by the state on its own citizens: criminal laws, civil rights laws and employment discrimination laws.

People use Law to protect themselves, their families and their property. They do this through a variety of means: police work, traffic enforcement and public education. They hire lawyers and judges to help them through legal problems and to provide justice.

There are many kinds of Law: contract law, tort law, property law and administrative law. Tort law involves injuries to persons or their property, such as an automobile accident or defamation of character. Contract law lays out the terms of business transactions, such as contracts to sell goods and services. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible possessions, such as homes, cars and bank accounts; it also covers intangible property like copyrights and patents. Administrative law regulates government agencies, like the postal service, banking and railroads.

Law applies to all kinds of people, from rich to poor, in every kind of country and culture. It is a powerful force that shapes societies and can have profound effects on individuals. For example, a person who screams obscenity at another person is breaking the law, which forbids such behavior.

The making of Law is a political process, and its exact definition is a matter of debate. It can be made by a group legislature in the form of statutes; by an individual, as decrees and regulations; or by a court through precedent (or stare decisis). It may cover a wide range of issues, from the rights of prisoners to the rights of minorities. In some areas, federal law preempts all state law, while in others, such as antitrust and intellectual property, a limited number of federal laws coexist with state law. In still other areas, the law is purely local.

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