What Is Law?

Law is a framework for the resolution of disputes between people and between government and society. It shapes politics, economics, history and culture in many ways. Law also provides the basis for many scholarly fields such as legal history, philosophy and sociology.

The precise definition of law is a matter of debate. In its most basic sense, it is a set of rules that is created and enforced by a community to regulate behavior. The exact rules a community creates and how they are enforced depends on many factors including cultural traditions, religious beliefs and political systems.

There are different legal systems around the world. Some are civil law jurisdictions, where a legislature codifies and consolidates its laws, and others are common law systems, where judges decide cases and create binding precedent. Religion has a major influence on some legal systems, such as Sharia in Iran.

Some of the most important parts of law concern personal and family matters such as divorce, child custody and the right to inherit money. Other areas of law include immigration, where countries define the rights of citizens and non-citizens to live and work in their territory, and nationality laws, which define the right to acquire and lose citizenship. Criminal law deals with conduct considered harmful to social order and the punishment of those found guilty of breaking the laws. Civil law focuses on dispute resolution, such as lawsuits between individuals or organizations.

Another area of law concerns the regulation of public utilities and services. Water, electricity, gas and telecommunications are all regulated industries in most OECD countries. The law in these areas varies widely, reflecting the different approaches to social responsibility of private companies versus those of governments.

In the political sphere, the most fundamental building block of law is the state, or nation-state. Who makes the laws, how they are enforced and how those who break the laws are punished are all determined by political and military power. The legitimacy of government, as defined by James Madison and Max Weber, is the idea that there are checks on power that ensure it does not become absolute. This includes checks such as separation of powers, participation in decision-making, impartiality in judging and transparency.

As the world’s oldest profession, the practice of law is highly regulated. Lawyers are required to follow a code of ethics, are generally bound by decisions of higher courts that can review their cases and must be licensed or authorised to practice. The process of becoming a lawyer involves extensive study and the successful completion of a legal exam. Legal practice is often supervised by a bar association, council or law society. There is a wide range of careers within the field of law, from corporate law to criminal and civil law, to intellectual property law and family law. Each of these specialisations raises profound questions about equality, fairness and justice. It is for these reasons that the study of law is so fascinating to scholars from all disciplines.

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