What is Law?


Law is a complex subject which influences politics, economics, history and society in many different ways. It shapes the behaviour of individuals and communities and governs relations between countries. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. The word law implies imposition by a superior authority and an obligation of obedience on the part of those subject to it. The nature of law as a system of rules regulating behaviour makes it unique from other sciences and disciplines. Its normative nature also deprives it of the causal character which characterises empirical science (as in the law of gravity) or social science (as in the laws of supply and demand).

The main functions of law are to (1) keep the peace, (2) protect people and property from harm and (3) settle disputes. Law is a source of scholarly enquiry in such diverse fields as legal history, philosophy and economic analysis. It raises important and complex issues concerning equality and justice.

A major distinction is made between civil law jurisdictions where a central body codifies and consolidates its laws and common law systems which develop case law through judges’ decisions. The latter tend to be more flexible and adaptable, but are more likely to reflect the opinions of the judiciary than the prevailing social beliefs of the community. In some religious communities the law is based on religious scriptures.

Specific areas of law include commercial law (involving contracts, property and liability), environmental law, labour law, tax law and banking law. International law concerns the relationships between nation-states and deals with matters such as foreign policy, immigration and international crime.

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